The 6 Basic Emotions According to Psychology

Normally we tend to believe that emotions are irrational and that they lead us to poor decision-making, which in turn can lead us to conclude that emotions are useless. However, this is a serious mistake.

Emotions play a very important role in our lives: they help us modulate our behavior and act quickly in situations where it is necessary. In this article, we explain the 6 basic emotions according to psychology

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6 or 4 basic emotions?

The most significant emotions are what we call basic emotions (surprise, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and anger).

These basic emotions are part of the natural development of each human being and are the same for everyone, regardless of the individual's environment. In general, they are processes related to evolution and adaptation and have an innate and universal neural background. In addition, they have a characteristic associated emotional state, which we could call feeling.

According to Ekman's psychology, there are these six basic emotions. However, thanks to new neuroscience techniques, we know that disgust and anger come from a common emotion and that surprise and fear share a basic facial expression. So, we can say that there are 4 basic emotions.

However, we are going to define the basic emotions proposed by the psychological theory of Ekman.

1. Disgust

According to Ekman's theory, disgust is one of the basic emotions. It implies a feeling of repulsion or avoidance of the possibility (real or imagined) of ingesting a dangerous substance with polluting properties. The subjective sensation is one of great dislike and a marked aversion to the offensive stimulus. The central physiological effects are manifested in different gastrointestinal problems along with nausea. There is also a general increase in activation in the body.

Disgust as a negative emotion is also reflected in the increase in heart and respiratory rate, the response of skin conductance and muscle tension. The adaptive function of disgust is to reject any stimulus that may be toxic. Nausea and discomfort help the subject avoid eating things that are harmful to the body. In addition, over time, this emotion has also acquired a social character. We also reject toxic social stimuli.

2. Surprise

According to psychology, we can define surprise as the reaction provoked by something unexpected, new or strange. In other words, it is when a stimulus appears in which the subject had not thought beforehand. The subjective experience that accompanies surprise is a feeling of uncertainty. Regarding physiological reactions, a decrease in heart rate and an increase in muscle tone are usually observed. The breathing becomes deeper, the tone rises and the subject makes spontaneous vocalizations.

The purpose of the surprise is to empty the working memory of all the residual activity in order to face the unexpected stimulus. To do this, surprise activates attention processes, along with behavior related to exploration and curiosity. Depending on the quality of the unexpected stimulus, joy (positive) or anger (negative) often follow this emotion.

3. Fear

This is the emotion most studied by researchers in humans and animals. Fear is a negative or adverse emotional state. It implies a high activation that leads to avoid and escape from dangerous situations. The experience of fear is that of high tension, along with concern for one's health and safety. The correlated physiological symptoms show us a rapid increase in activation and preparation for flight. Cardiac activity is triggered and breathing accelerates.

The breathing becomes superficial and irregular. Fear is an evolutionary legacy that has an obvious survival value. This emotion is useful to prepare the body and provoke survival behaviors in potentially dangerous situations. In addition, it helps to learn new protection responses.

4. Happiness

Of all the basic emotions according to psychology, happiness is perhaps the most positive. We directly associate happiness with pleasure and joy. It comes in response to the resolution of a personal goal or after mitigating a negative situation, for example. Due to the way we express it, it does not seem to have any kind of survival function. It does not seem to be more than the reflection of our internal state. However, happiness is one of the bodily systems that moves us to action.

It is also a reward for the behavior that brings us benefits. When we take some kind of action that fulfills a goal, happiness arises. Thanks to that feeling of happiness, we will repeat that behavior to experience pleasure again. These may be the most natural motivators we have. At the physiological level, an increase in heart rate and a better respiratory rate are observed. In addition to that, we find that the brain releases more endorphins and dopamine.

5. Sadness

Of all the basic emotions according to psychology, sadness is probably the most negative. This emotion implies a decrease in mood, as well as a significant reduction in cognitive and behavioral activity.

Despite the bad reputation that this emotion receives, it fulfills roles that are as important, even more important, than the rest of the basic emotions.

The purpose of sadness is to act in situations in which the subject is impotent or cannot take any direct action. An example is the loss of a loved one. Sadness reduces levels of activity, which is the body trying to save resources and avoid unnecessary efforts. Sadness also plays a role of self - protection. It generates a perceptual filter that focuses attention on the harmful stimulus. And what is more important, it pushes people to seek social support, which will help them get out of a depressive situation.

6. Anger

Anger arises when an individual is in situations that produce frustration or aversion. The experience of anger is unpleasant. It is accompanied by a feeling of tension that drives us to act. It is a multifaceted emotion and, in many cases, ambiguous. We say ambiguous because it is not always justified and the object is not always well identified. At the physiological level, an excessive increase in activation and preparation for action is observed.

We observe an increase in cardiac activity. Muscle tone and respiratory rate also increase, plus there is a significant increase in adrenaline in the blood. This, in turn, increases cognitive tension. Anger has a clear evolutionary function. It gives us the resources we need to deal with frustrating situations.

When we have to face some kind of danger or overcome a challenge, spending these resources to increase activation helps us succeed. If we do not reach our goal after feeling angry, then we move on to sadness. This means that we seek to solve the problem using other tools.

Basic and secondary emotions

Whether positive, negative or neutral, all emotions have a purpose that helps us survive. On the other hand, they can also be dangerous. They can put us in dangerous situations or control our behavior. In those cases, emotional regulation is especially important. Emotional regulation is what makes it possible to avoid negativity when emotions are at the helm.

The difference between basic and secondary emotions

In this case we find disparity of opinions: some experts say that secondary emotions are those that derive from basic emotions (for example, anxiety can be the mixture of fear with another type of emotional response).

On the other hand, other psychologists say that the main difference between basic and secondary emotions lies in the complexity of the latter, developing over time and centuries of human evolution.