Study: Humans Feel Only Four Basic Emotions

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

This picture taken on August 11, 2013 shows a laughing child playing in a fountain to cool off as Shanghai continues to be hit by hotter than usual weather. (STR/AFP/Getty)

There are countless of words to describe emotions, and for centuries people have created songs and poems that attempt to describe them. And of course, our own hearts and minds feel them so intensely.

But conventional scientific understanding holds that there are only six classic emotions: Happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry, and sad. That is until now.

A new study finds that, in fact, we don't even have six emotions—but only four "basic" emotions: Happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted.

Dr. Rachael Jack of the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow, is one of the scientists behind this new finding. She joins The Takeaway to explain how we categorize emotions.

Guests:

Dr. Rachael Jack

Produced by:

Mythili Rao

Editors:

T.J. Raphael

Comments [10]

Linda Burnett from Dallas, TX

I successfully quit smoking because my mother bet me I couldn't. She paid up.

Feb. 06 2014 12:40 PM
CAROLINE from NJ USA

It seems the operative words are "early signaling". Surprise and fear, surprise and happy, surprise is feeling awed ~ awed with sadness or happiness or fear of the unusual ~ by something happening. Information-ally we've developed words to further distinguish what/how the initial trigger concerns us and perhaps people around us.

So, it is with disgust like anger since the facial expression immediately upon finding the disgusting thing looks alike/similar too an angry expression. IE. If I wanted to eat what is now moldy - yep! I feel disgusted to find my food spoiled and my tummy empty with lost hope of filling it, I'm angry.

I am not to sure why there's so much disgust/angry objection surrounding the further findings of initial-facial-signaling . . . Wha's that? It is exactly that our emotions have not evolved, but out language has. The same is true of cultural differences in speech where peoples who have not experienced a variety of weather have fewer words to describe new weather phenomena. Now we have "arctic vortex" but, it's just cold air.

Feb. 06 2014 11:54 AM
Jeff Smith from Oregon

So then it's not really homophobia but homo-disgustia (or whatever).

Feb. 05 2014 10:27 PM
G0f0rIt from Palo Alto, CA, USA

Some people appear to have no emotions whatsoever, others react like a touchscreen to just about any kind of interaction and occurrence. It is arguable that people in the latter group are way more excitable than others, which clearly differentiates them. Given that observation, excitement\bewilderment\other synonym is clearly a separate kind of emotion. It is not the same as any of the others listed, nor a subset of the others, nor a combination.

The conclusion is that the researchers only interviewed their bored-to-death colleagues.

Feb. 05 2014 09:22 PM
Mark from Pennsylvania.

I'm disappointed with the characterization of Dr. Jack's research as "getting rid of two emotions." Several times during the story, she stated that these four categorizations are the *early stages* of signaling emotion. In those early stages, anger and disgust are identical signals and fear and surprise are identical. When they progress to subsequent stages, those signals diverge and proceed to become the discrete emotions we associate with fear, surprise, disgust, and anger. If you think of the situation as pathways or roads, it goes something like this: From your point of origin (emotional neutrality), there are four paths you can take: Happy, Sad, Angry/Disgusted, and Surprised/Afraid. If you head down either of the latter two paths, they then subsequently branch out to Angry OR Disgusted and Surprised OR Afraid, but for the early stages of the journey, the path is identical. Please try to veer away from the "sensational" headline and focus on the research better.

Feb. 05 2014 03:09 PM
Mark from Pennsylvania.

I'm disappointed with the characterization of Dr. Jack's research as "getting rid of two emotions." Several times during the story, she stated that these four categorizations are the *early stages* of signaling emotion. In those early stages, anger and disgust are identical signals and fear and surprise are identical. When they progress to subsequent stages, those signals diverge and proceed to become the discrete emotions we associate with fear, surprise, disgust, and anger. If you think of the situation as pathways or roads, it goes something like this: From your point of origin (emotional neutrality), there are four paths you can take: Happy, Sad, Angry/Disgusted, and Surprised/Afraid. If you head down either of the latter two paths, they then subsequently branch out to Angry OR Disgusted and Surprised OR Afraid, but for the early stages of the journey, the path is identical. Please try to veer away from the "sensational" headline and focus on the research better.

Feb. 05 2014 03:09 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Perhaps in the not too distant future, we won't have any emotions.

Feb. 05 2014 02:14 PM
Margaret Treece from Portland, OR

I'm afraid I was disappointed by your commentary on this. "Scientists are getting rid of two emotions!" is certainly a more sensational approach than "As emotional reactions, both anger and disgust initially look identical in our physical responses."

Could it be that Dr. Jack's research is simply about categorizing? Your initial reference to primary colors making a nearly infinite spectrum of color certainly suggested this. I heard her make no claim to invalidate any emotion or combination of emotions.

You never asked the method of analysis. Was it a measurement of brainwaves? Some form of autonomic response? Or was it merely a philosophical conclusion?
This sensationalizing seems very foreign to NPR and, I think, The Takeaway, and more at home on the Fox network.

Feb. 05 2014 01:31 PM
Nancy Harrington from Portland, Oregon

I am disgusted with this story, not angry. I object to the way this was presented as "we don't feel any more emotions than 4." this is only the way that some people CATEGORIZE emotions, it does not mean we don't FEEL a huge group of different and unique emotions. Just because we, in our history as cavemen, did not have the intellect or language skills to define or express our feelings doesn't mean we didn't have them back then just as much as we have feelings today. Judging by the way John Hockenberry was speaking a bit sarcastically with the scientist he interviewed for the story I am guessing he agrees with me in my assessment.

Feb. 05 2014 01:08 PM
Nathan

In response to an earlier comment you read over the air:
theory of relativity? Bunk! It doesn't square with common sense at all....

Feb. 05 2014 12:42 PM

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