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Primary Emotions

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Primary Emotions

"My jaw dropped to the floor!" This common expression is universally meant to refer to a feeling of surprise. While we all experience this world in drastically different ways, we can find a common ground in how we express and perceive our core emotions.

  • We will define primary emotions.
  • We'll discuss the difference between primary and secondary emotions.
  • We will look at examples of primary emotions, followed by a chart of primary emotions.
  • We'll examine different theories and concepts of primary emotions in psychology.

Primary Emotions Definition

Emotion is one of the most important features of human nature. Our emotions help us survive, motivate our behavior, and provide valuable information while interacting with others. Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals laid the framework for the widely shared belief that humans possess universal emotions. In 1960, after a series of experiments studying emotion and facial expressions, Paul Ekman identified six primary or basic emotions.

Primary emotions (or basic emotions) are the basic emotions experienced by humans including anger, fear, disgust, sadness, happiness, and surprise.

Primary emotions are universally recognized, which means that all humans are born with the ability to recognize these emotions, with the exception of those suffering from developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder. Even babies will cry if someone is yelling and angry or smile when they see someone happy and smiling.

Primary emotions are our automatic reactions in a situation, and are commonly associated with facial expressions and physiological responses that are similar across people and cultures. Facial expressions allow for our primary emotions to be expressed without the need for verbal communication. While primary emotions are fundamentally universal, they may vary in intensity and do not always occur in isolation. We may feel angry and fearful when someone cuts us off in traffic, or sadness and disgust when we see racial injustices on the news.

Primary vs. Secondary Emotions

Primary emotions, especially in Darwin's terms, are hardly the extent of the emotional experience of human beings. Following many primary emotions are secondary emotions, or complex emotions.

Secondary (complex) emotions are the feelings a person experiences in response to their feelings.

In other words, secondary emotions are our feelings about feelings. Secondary emotions, contrary to primary emotions, do not come naturally. They are learned either through familial or social influences. For example, if a person was reprimanded as a child every time they were sad and cried, they may feel shame or fear later in life for feeling sad and wanting to cry.

Cognitive processing is required for secondary emotions, whereas primary emotions require no second thought. Primary emotions come on strong but do not last very long, whereas secondary emotions can be long lasting and even intensify over time. They may be comprised of several other emotions into one, making them less identifiable. Additionally, secondary emotions, unlike primary emotions, will not look the same across people and cultures. Examples of secondary emotions include guilt, frustration, remorse, resentment, and confusion.

Let's take a look at some examples of the six primary emotions: anger, fear, disgust, sadness, happiness, and surprise.

Anger

Anger is an emotional state in which a person feels mistreated or hindered from pursuing a goal. Anger can be one of the most dangerous emotions at its most extreme, and has the potential to invoke violent behavior. Injustice, betrayal, rejection, being hurt or seeing someone hurt, or even another person's anger can cause us to become angry. Someone who feels angry may yell, sweat, clench their jaw or fists, or puff out their chest to appear larger.

Anger facial expressions:

  • Tightly pressed lips
  • Hard stare/wide eyes
  • Eyebrows pulled down and together

Primary Emotions, man crossed arms angry, StudySmarterAnger, Freepik.com

Fear

One of our most primal emotions is fear. While fear often has negative connotations, it is key to our survival as a species; it is what triggers our fight or flight response. We experience fear in response to an emotional, physical, or psychological threat. These threats may be real or they may be imagined. Without fear, we may not recognize when we need to cope with potential threats. A greater ability to cope reduces the intensity of fear. Consistent fear may eventually become chronic anxiety, leading to other possible disorders.

Fear facial expressions:

  • Tense lower eyelids
  • Raised upper eyelids
  • Dropped jaw/lips stretched backwards
  • Eyebrows raised

Primary Emotions, man biting fingers afraid, StudySmarterFear, Freepik.com

Disgust

Disgust often arises from repulsive or aversive feelings towards something. The intensity of this feeling may vary from mild dislike to an extreme reaction. Things that are offensive, poisonous, or contaminating are most likely to cause feelings of disgust. From an evolutionary perspective, disgust is meant to keep us from harmful substances or situations. Some triggers for disgust are generally true for most people, such as smelling body odor. However, others may be more individually or culturally influenced. Some feelings of disgust are not immediately present at birth. Before the ages of four to eight years, children often experience distaste rather than disgust.

Disgust facial expressions:

  • Slightly protruding lower lip
  • Upper lip shaped like an upside-down "U"
  • Wrinkled nose
  • Lowered eyebrows

Primary Emotions, woman looking disgusted hands up, StudySmarterDisgust, Freepik.com

Sadness

Sadness is an emotion that is characterized by hopelessness, disappointment, or grief that may be triggered by the loss of a valued person or object. While sadness is a universal emotion everyone experiences, its causes are often personal and cultural. In other words, what makes one person sad may not affect another the same way.

Sadness plays an important role in highlighting moments in which we need comfort or support. Sadness is a longer-lasting emotion. However, if it becomes chronic and begins to interfere with daily living, it is more accurately characterized as depression.

Sadness facial expressions:

  • Eyes looking down/drooping eyelids
  • Corners of lips pulled downward
  • Eyebrows pulled up and together

Primary Emotions, girl with sad face, StudySmarterSadness, Freepik.com

Happiness

Happiness, a pleasant emotional state characterized by feelings of enjoyment, satisfaction, and contentment, is the most desirable of the six primary emotions. Happiness can be either universal or personal and is experienced through our senses. When people experience happiness, they often describe the feeling as light, energetic, or warm. It may signal friendliness to others, as well as communicate that we are not a threat.

Happiness facial expressions:

  • Narrowed eyes/wrinkling around the eyes
  • Raised cheeks
  • Smile with lips pulled back and exposed teeth

Primary Emotions, man with beard smiling, StudySmarterHappiness, Freepik.com

Surprise

Surprise is an emotional state that follows an encounter with sudden or unexpected stimuli. It is brief, unexpected, and can be either positive or negative. This emotion is meant to help us identify what's happening, and whether or not we are in danger. While other emotions may also be brief, surprise is always brief. Within seconds, we get a sense of what's happening and either experience another emotion, or none at all. Surprise should not be confused with being startled, which is more of a physical reflex than an emotion. For example, if we are startled, we may jump or gasp.

Surpise facial expressions:

  • Dropped jaw
  • Upper eyelids raised (lower neutral)
  • Eyebrows raised but not pulled together

Primary Emotion, woman with dropped jaw surprised, StudySmarterSurprise, Freepik.com

Primary Emotions Chart

We describe our emotions using several different words or descriptions. However, these words can generally boil down to one or more of the six primary emotions. Below is a chart listing some examples.

Anger

Irritability

Frustration

Bitterness

Humiliation

Resentment

Sadness

Grief

Neglect

Guilt

Regret

Loneliness

Fear

Anxiety

Panic

Nervous

Apprehensive

Overwhelmed

Disgust

Disdain

Distaste

Horrified

Revolted

Disappointment

Happiness

Joy

Contentment

Hopeful

Playful

Powerful

Surprise

Perplexed

Astonished

Shocked

Eager

Amazed

Primary Emotions in Psychology

A handful of psychologists challenge the very existence of primary emotions. They argue that primary emotions are not emotions, but rather building blocks to more complex psychological traits. Additionally, while the six primary emotions identified are accepted by many psychologists, others have identified additional primary emotions. For example, Carroll Izard (1977) identified ten primary emotions he found to be most present during infancy. These were primarily based on facial expressions.

They include:

  • Anger

  • Fear

  • Joy

  • Disgust

  • Interest-Excitement

  • Content

  • Shame

  • Surprise

  • Guilt

  • Joy

Observing facial expressions can give therapists insight into their client's emotional experiences. Also, as we've mentioned, primary emotions are often accompanied by distinctive physiological responses. A therapist can use this knowledge to help clients with low emotional awareness identify their feelings. A tight chest may mean fear or anxiety. A fluttery stomach may mean joy or excitement.

Processing and identifying primary and secondary emotions can be an important tool used to help cope with one's emotions. By understanding our primary emotions, we may gain insight into what we should move towards, and what we should move away from. Primary emotions are reactions either to a threat or an opportunity. To process primary emotions, it may be helpful to first identify what triggered that emotion. Then, by being present and mindful of the current moment, we may discover why that primary emotion was triggered.

A different approach should be taken to cope with and process secondary emotions. For one, it may be helpful to understand the facts of the situation and adjust one's thoughts to reflect the truth. Many times, our secondary emotions are ingrained in us due to past experiences or even trauma. This can lead to an inability to see a situation objectively. It's best to slow down and find a way to problem-solve the situation. Identifying what primary emotions make up our secondary emotions can improve our self-awareness.

Primary Emotions - Key takeaways

  • In 1960, after a series of experiments studying emotion and facial expressions, Paul Ekman identified six primary or basic emotions: anger, fear, disgust, sadness, happiness, and surprise.
    • Anger is an emotional state in which a person feels mistreated or hindered from pursuing a goal.
    • One of our most primal emotions is fear. While fear often has negative connotations, it is key to our survival as a species, and it is what triggers our fight or flight response.
    • Sadness is an emotion that is characterized by hopelessness, disappointment, or grief that may be triggered by the loss of a valued person or object.
    • Disgust often arises from repulsed or aversive feelings towards something.
    • Happiness, a pleasant emotional state characterized by feelings of enjoyment, satisfaction, and contentment, is the most desirable of the six primary emotions.
    • Surprise is an emotional state that follows an encounter with sudden or unexpected stimuli.
  • Primary emotions are our automatic reactions in a situation and are commonly associated with facial expressions and physiological responses that are similar across people and cultures.
  • Secondary (complex) emotions are the feelings a person experiences in response to their feelings. Cognitive processing is required for secondary emotions, whereas primary emotions require no second thought.
  • Carroll Izard (1977) identified ten primary emotions he found to be most present during infancy.

Frequently Asked Questions about Primary Emotions

Primary emotions include anger, fear, disgust, sadness, happiness, and surprise.

Yes. Anger is an emotional state in which a person feels mistreated or hindered from pursuing a goal.

According to Paul Ekman, there are six (later 7) primary emotions. However, according to Carroll Izard, there are ten.

One of our most primal emotions is fear. While fear often has negative connotations, it is key to our survival as a species. It is what triggers our fight or flight response.

Guilt is a primary emotion according to Carroll Izard. However, other psychologists may consider guilt a secondary emotion.

Final Primary Emotions Quiz

Question

Who laid the framework  for the widely shared belief that humans possess basic emotions.

Show answer

Answer

Charles Darwin

Show question

Question

______________ are the basic emotions experienced by humans including anger, fear, disgust, sadness, happiness, and surprise

Show answer

Answer

Primary emotions

Show question

Question

What are secondary emotions?


Show answer

Answer

Secondary (complex) emotions are the feelings a person experiences in response to their feelings.

Show question

Question

True or False? Primary emotions do not come naturally but are learned either through familial or social influences.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or False? Cognitive processing is required for secondary emotions whereas primary emotions require no second thought.


Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

While ____ often has negative connotations, it is key to our survival as a species and it's what triggers our fight or flight response.


Show answer

Answer

fear

Show question

Question

_______  is an emotional state in which a person feels mistreated or hindered from pursuing a goa


Show answer

Answer

Anger

Show question

Question

_________ often arises from repulsive or aversive feelings towards something.


Show answer

Answer

Disgust

Show question

Question

__________ is an emotion that is characterized by hopelessness, disappointment, or grief that may be triggered by the loss of a valued person or object.


Show answer

Answer

Sadness

Show question

Question

A pleasant emotional state characterized by feelings of enjoyment, satisfaction, and contentment that is the most desirable of the six primary emotions is _______

Show answer

Answer

Happiness

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Question

True or False? Surprise is always a brief emotion.

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Answer

True

Show question

Question

Feelings of neglect or loneliness may be extensions of what primary emotion?


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Answer

Sadness

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Question

Feeling purplexed or astonished is an extension of which primary emotion?

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Answer

Surprise

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Question

How did Carroll Izard identify his 10 primary emotions?


Show answer

Answer

Facial expressions of babies

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Question

While watching a movie in class, you notice that your friend Jackson's eyebrows are pulled together, his eyes are drooping, and the corner of his lips are slightly angled downward.  What primary emotion might Jackson be experiencing?

Show answer

Answer

Sadness

Show question

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