Primary emotions: what are they, types and functions

Human beings can feel a multitude of emotions. Among these there are some that are considered primary, which depending on the author are five or seven. They are considered primary because they are automatic states of mind that fulfill an adaptive function in different situations. Normally these emotions are due to thoughts, memories, wishes, situations.

Emotions cause certain changes in our body such as redness or paleness of the face, respiratory and heart rhythms are altered, visceral movements stop momentarily. Are you wondering what are the primary emotions, their types and their functions? If so, keep reading to find out.

What are primary emotions

For an emotion to be considered primary, it must meet a series of requirements:

  • Having a specific neural substrate that differentiates it from the rest. That is, that the neurons involved are certain ones.
  • That the facial expression that represents said emotion is characteristic and distinctive.
  • That the feelings underlying the emotion, that is, the thoughts and the way we feel, are characteristic of that emotion.
  • It has an evolutionary and survival purpose.
  • It has adaptive functions in a certain situation.

Next we will see what are the primary emotions and their functions. We will explain one by one the primary emotions, the types and what they are for.


It is the primary emotion of shorter duration. Not all authors consider it a primary emotion, since it does not meet all the aforementioned requirements. It is an emotional reaction to an unexpected situation, such as a surprise party, for example. Your time limit is determined by when the next emotion appears. Surprise is considered a neutral emotion, that is, it is neither negative nor positive.

Surprise function

Its main function is to make the nervous system adjust to an unforeseen change in the environment, eliminating the possible interferences that could appear.


It was among the first to be considered primary emotion and it ticks all the boxes. It is a rejection reaction to different stimuli, for example to a food that we do not like or our reaction to a public bathroom. Disgust would belong to the group of negative emotions.

Disgust function

It has different functions, the most basic of which is to remove us from potentially harmful situations. In addition, it promotes healthy habits such as personal hygiene. In addition, it has a social function since it inhibits certain reactions that could endanger our social integration.


This primal emotion is a way of warning us that a danger is coming that we may not be prepared for. Fear is awakened after a stimulus that makes us anticipate said danger (for example, a noise at night in our home). It would belong, like disgust, to the group of negative emotions.

Function of fear

Its functions are clearly adaptive. Specifically, it helps the subject to carry out some behavior to distance himself from possible danger, thus promoting escape and avoidance behaviors, preventing us from facing dangerous situations. In addition, it helps to act as a group in the face of danger and that hierarchies are established within that group.


Joy is considered a primary emotion of a positive kind. It is associated with positive feelings such as pleasure and euphoria and the suppression of negative feelings. Therefore, a feeling of calm and well-being is produced.

Joy function

Its function is adaptive since it promotes the repetition of an activity or behavior due to the sensation of reward that it causes as a pleasant emotion. In addition, it facilitates social union and planning for the future.


This primary emotion is in the group of negative emotions. Energy and motivation are lowered, metabolism is lowered, and social isolation is increased. Sadness arises after the appearance of an emotionally damaging situation.

Sadness function

It responds to the survival instinct as it alerts us to a harmful situation. In addition, it promotes the search for social support.

Go to

It is a negative emotion that prioritizes sending blood to the hands and legs. Adrenaline levels rise. Anger is associated with hostility, fury, and in the most extreme cases with permanent and pathological hatred.

Anger function

The preparation of the limbs has the purpose of being able to defend ourselves against possible danger. That is, it responds to the survival instinct. In some cases, it promotes group unity as anger also develops in order to defend a third party.


Love is another of the primary emotions. If you want to know more about this emotion, this article find q hat is love according to psychology.

Love function

Its main function is the reproductive and the perpetuation of the genes themselves. At present it fulfills a social and emotional support function.

Circle of primary and secondary emotions

As we have said, there are several theories about emotions and different classifications. Some authors who classify emotions are Daniel Goleman, Paul Ekman, and Robert Plutchik.

In this article you can see the different types of emotions and feelings. And then we show with an image all this variety of reactions and affective states.