Last Updated: February 15, 2024

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Emotions are complex mental states which should not be confused with moods and feelings. Specifically, emotions are conscious mental reactions that are subjectively experienced. Though a growing literature surrounds emotional topics, there has yet to be a consensus on the theories on emotions.

Defining Emotions

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), an emotion is a complex reaction pattern often involving experiential, behavioral, and physiological components.

Emotions are based on how an individual deals with positive and negative experiences. Emotion is typically broken down into three parts: a subjective experience, a physiological response, and a behavioral or expressive response.

The process of defining human emotions is still in progress. Several theories exist about what constitutes our emotions, but even current ideas are still being challenged.

Sociocultural Influences

Sociocultural influences can cause individuals of different cultures to label emotions incongruently.

Paul Ekman, an American psychologist, in the 1960s, traveled to four locations: the United States, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. In each location, the researchers presented participants with photos displaying various expressions and requested them to associate each image with one of six primary emotions. A consensus emerged that smiles corresponded to happiness, while anger was seen as the opposite.

However, this all changed once this study was performed again in a remote community without exposure to Western ideals.

In Papua New Guinea, the same experiment took place, and participants chose the expected emotion only twenty-eight percent of the time. The most confusing emotions to identify were fear, surprise, and anger.

Therefore, although there is a general consensus that six primary emotions exist, this may only be true for some countries and cultures.  

Evidence of Culture and Emotions

Culture is very influential and shapes an individual’s expression and subjective experience of emotions. According to an article in the Association for Psychological Science, research at Stanford University suggests that people generally prefer to feel more positive than negative emotions.

However, the specific emotions that cause a positive experience can differ between cultures. For example, the positive human emotions that European Americans tended to prefer were excitement and elation.

Chinese populations preferred calm and relaxing emotions. Part of this difference is in the differences in advertising and marketing between both cultures and core cultural values.

Paul Ekman suggested that emotions can be divided into universal and culturally specific emotions. Within the culturally specific category, four different subtopics are mentioned.

Display rules within cultures can differ, specifically about when and how to express emotions. There are also linguistic barriers regarding the specific language used to describe an emotion and the exact words for emotions.

Lastly, specific significant cultural events differ regarding what emotions and attitudes are expected. It is important to note there may even be differences within a particular culture. 

An instance of cultural language differences can be observed in the German term "Schadenfreude," which describes the pleasure derived from learning about an enemy's misfortune.

This unique emotional state has been given a distinct label. For the people of Tahiti, there is no word or concept of sadness. They may act in a way that expresses sadness, but they do not describe it as being labeled this way.

Feelings vs. Emotions

While feelings and emotions are closely related, they are not interchangeable. Feelings frequently emerge in response to emotional experiences.

Influenced by memories, beliefs, and many other factors, feelings often result from emotions, but they are not identical to them. Additionally, emotions are usually described as originating from sensations in the body. Feelings typically do not have this origin.

“Mood” is also another term that needs to be more understood. A mood would be any short-lived emotional state of low intensity.

Moods differ from emotions because they lack stimuli or triggers and do not have a clear starting point. An example given is that being insulted can trigger the emotion of anger. But, being angry does not necessarily have to be due to a specific cause.

The Process of Emotion

One of the primary debates surrounding emotions is what qualifies as an emotion and the sequence in which emotions occur.

As noted previously, this sequence comprises a subjective experience, physiological, and behavioral responses.

Subjective Experiences

The beginning of experiencing emotions involves a subjective experience, also known as a stimulus. Six basic emotions are widely acknowledged within the field. These include sadness, happiness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust.

Other theories of basic emotions which are up for debate include anticipation and joy, which can be regarded as combinations of the four basic emotions.

Categorization of a basic emotion is any emotion with a universally recognizable expression that must be produced automatically and be pure. Emotions are ​​complex if they do not fit into this category.

These emotions have varying expressions that can be difficult to recognize, require cognitive processing, and are made up of a combination of multiple emotions.

Whether basic or complex emotions are being expressed, subjective experiences focus on the experience that the individual produces from these emotions.

Physiological Responses

Emotions come with physiological responses in the body to specific subjective experiences. For instance, when someone experiences sadness, one may cry, or when one is nervous, they may feel their heart rate increase.

These physiological responses are closely tied to the autonomic nervous system and its reaction to the particular emotion that the individual is experiencing. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating fight-or-flight responses

Behavioral Responses

Behavioral responses constitute the aspect of emotion that involves outward expression of emotion, such as smiling, laughing, or sighing. However, it's crucial to recognize that societal norms may play a role in shaping these responses.

Behavioral responses are healthy for an individual’s well-being. A study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology reported that while watching negative and positive emotional films, the suppression of behavioral responses to emotion physically affected participants. Therefore, it is clear from the evidence that expressing different emotions is healthy.

Basic Emotions and Complex Emotions

As mentioned earlier, there is quite a division in the research of emotional psychology between basic and complex emotions. Basic emotions were a topic that fascinated scientists such as Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin was the first to suggest that emotion-induced facial expressions are universal. Within the context of evolution, the implication was that emotions and expressions of emotions come from biological responses and are adaptive for human survival.

Furthermore, emotions have been observed in animals, which are essential, especially for signaling.

The Facial Features of Emotion

Interestingly, other current bodies of evidence suggest that there are biological and genetic purposes for facial expressions of emotion.

There have been compelling findings from a study of the facial expression of emotions of blind individuals. Even in those who have been blind since birth, the spontaneous arousal of emotions can trigger facial expressions.

Remarkably, these expressions are identical to those observed in sighted individuals.

The same structure of muscles within the face exists in babies and adults and becomes fully functional at birth. The ​​same structure is also present in chimpanzees. They provide more support for universal facial expressions as they are in both humans and even nonhuman primates.

The Eight Basic Emotions

Robert Plutchik is one of the researchers in this field who proposed eight primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, anticipation, trust, and joy. He then arranged all of them into a color wheel.

While Plutchik’s theory is not a common one by today’s standards, the contribution of the color wheel has been mainly relevant to studying complex emotions.

In 1980 to help understand his Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion.

Plutchik identified eight primary emotions which he coordinated in pairs of opposites.

"The intensity of the emotion increases as you move towards the wheel’s centre and decreases as you move outward; the darker the shade, the more intense the emotion"

The color wheel is a complex-looking shape that divides into eight sectors which are the primary emotions. Eight different colors are used, one for each sector. There are also vertical lines drawn on the wheel, and l, which are to represent intensity.

Emotions are said to intensify as they move from the outside of the wheel to the center. 

Lastly, there are relations between the emotions on the wheel. Each section has an opposite emotion diagonal from it which represents the opposite emotion. Some emotions with no colors on the wheel are a mix of two primary or basic emotions.

The Six Basic Emotions

Paul Ekman was the first to create a list of emotions though he identified six basic emotions. The list in 1999 expanded to include more. The original six emotions were sadness, happiness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust.

Researchers have also debated four basic emotions. While the six basic emotions theory is the most accepted, recently, there has been conflicting evidence from a study done at the University of Glasgow in 2014.

Ekman created this list, and it is part of the historical understanding. However, knowledge within this area is constantly changing.

Theories of Emotion

Several theories of emotion are taught in schools, but there are also less common ones that exist within the literature.

James-Lange Theory

The James-Lange theory is an example of one taught in schools because it is one of the earliest theories. This theory hypothesizes that psychological stimuli or arousal will cause the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to react, leading to the experience of emotions.

The physiological responses would be happening before the emotional behavior and subjective experience. This viewpoint focuses on combining physiological and psychological responses.

Cannon-Bard Theory

The Cannon-Bard theory directly opposes the James-Lange Theory. It suggests that the body and emotions are together simultaneously instead of one after another.

This theory does combine physiology and psychology. However, it relies on the fact that information is sent to two different areas of the brain at the same time. Those areas are the amygdala, which is vital for emotions such as fear.

There is also the cortex, the general area which combines inputs from information being fed into it.

Cognitive Appraisal Theory

Cognitive Appraisal theory is a theory that Richard Lazarus explored that emphasizes thinking. The order is that a person would first experience a stimulus, think, and then experience a physiological response and emotion.

Facial-Feedback Theory

Lastly, the less common facial-feedback theory primarily focuses on facial expressions. Strongly connected to the theories of Charles Darwin and William James, it is the idea that facial expressions impact emotion instead of being a response to emotion. 

The facial-feedback theory is directly connected to the importance of the facial muscles for experiencing emotions. Specific facial muscles function to hold the mouth open to smile in a certain which serves to express happiness.

This theory would say that the physical act of smiling expresses happiness; therefore, an individual may become happy simply by smiling.

The Benefits of Exploring Emotions

Starting from an early age, exploring emotions has several benefits. Like adults, children must develop strategies to manage their emotions. Being socially and emotionally aware and skilled can aid in forming relationships and problem-solving.

However, adult support is necessary for this to occur. Adults can provide support, explanations, and education to help children understand how to manage their feelings.

Working with Children

An essential first step to working with children on their emotions is teaching them how to label them. To begin encouraging a child's emotional development, one can start by asking them how they feel and be actively attuned to their emotions.

Adults can also model emotional awareness and understanding by demonstrating facial expressions and body language throughout the day. Additionally, speaking openly and appropriately about one's emotions with children can help foster their emotional understanding.

Lastly, speaking about how other people may feel in different situations can support the development of traits such as empathy.

In general, it is important that a child feels comfortable expressing their emotions to adults. It may require additional efforts, like helping the child frame their feelings.

Being a role model for emotional understanding is important for children to understand themselves, leading to a healthy expression of emotions.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Many people have heard of IQ or Intelligence quotient, a score designed to assess human intelligence. A measurement also exists for emotions, called emotional intelligence or EI. It is the ability to perceive, interpret, and use emotions to communicate with and relate to others.

While IQ is important, high EI can also lead to many successes in life.

A person with high emotional intelligence (EI) can identify and describe what others are feeling and are aware of their feelings and emotions. They can also show sensitivity to the feelings of others and express empathy.

Overall, high emotional intelligence can help people manage their own emotions and aid in understanding others more easily. People with high emotional intelligence are often described as good listeners, reflective, and empathetic.

Contributions to Emotional Intelligence

An individual who contributed significantly to the development of emotional intelligence as a concept was Howard Gardner in the mid-1970s. He then challenged the standards by suggesting that intelligence is more than one ability.

Psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer introduced emotional intelligence into the literature.

Emotional Intelligence Questionnaires

Many emotional intelligence quizzes and questionnaires are available, which can be divided into four types.

There are abilities-based, trait-based, competency-based, and behavior-based tests. Many of these tests refer to the emotional intelligence scale as a measure; approximately sixty-two items are considered, each with different weights.

Many people may take emotional intelligence questionnaires out of pure interest though there is an uptake in their use for hiring employees, for instance, within fields such as health care.

What is Emotional Regulation?

Emotional regulation generally refers to an individual's ability to influence the emotions they experience, including when and how they are expressed. This process is complex, as emotional regulation can occur both automatically and deliberately, and it may operate at a conscious or unconscious level.

Emotional regulation affects the entire range of emotions, from negative emotions to positive ones. The three major components of emotional regulation include initiating actions, inhibiting actions, and modulating responses.

The third component, modulating responses, is the healthiest technique to control emotions, as suppressing emotions can lead to adverse effects, as mentioned in a previous section. Emotional regulation can be described as a modifier and a filter for important information experienced in everyday life.

Studies on emotional regulation and mental health have seen an important relationship between emotion regulation and depression management. People with lower anxiety levels tend to have higher emotional control and emotional intelligence (EI).

Skills for Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation can be challenging to pursue initially, but it can be taught. People can learn to pause between experiencing feelings and their reactions. It can also be helpful to think critically about one's reactions to their feelings.

In addition, it's important to engage in value-based decision-making. Reacting impulsively without recognizing one's emotions can have negative consequences and cause one to act contrary to their core values and ethics.

Emotional regulation techniques can help individuals avoid such situations and make more deliberate and aligned choices.

Skills such as self-awareness are important for developing emotional regulation. Developing self-awareness can involve labeling an individual's emotions in the present time and becoming aware of the emotional presence.

Mindful awareness can add to self-awareness as it helps identify aspects of the external world, such as the body and the environment.

Cognitive Reappraisal Technique

Cognitive reappraisal is a psychological technique often taught by licensed psychologists or therapists to their patients. It calls for an individual to gain flexibility and acceptance of their emotions.

Typically, the practices involve looking at a situation in the past and the emotions felt from a new perspective to gain a broader awareness.

Adaptability is closely tied to flexibility in that it allows for the practice of objective thinking. Prompts for these activities include thinking about situations that happened in the past from the perspective of someone else who may have experienced that same thing.

Lastly, self-compassion is important for individuals to create flexible space within their minds and express positive and negative emotions.

Meditation and Emotional Regulation

As noted in the preceding section, various emotional regulation skills exist. Meditation is a practice that can help a person learn emotional regulation skills.

Meditation innately focuses on the mind-body connection and works to increase positive emotional feelings, emotional stability, and resilience, enhancing overall well-being.

The two mechanisms it uses make meditation an effective technique for developing emotional regulation. The first aspect of mindfulness involves attentional control, which governs the focus of an individual's attention.

The second aspect is cognitive control, which entails exerting deliberate and conscious control over one's thoughts and feelings. S

tudies have shown that people who meditate long-term are better connected, balanced, synchronized, organized, and efficient. Meditation can also operate with the brain's plasticity and rewire the brain for better emotional processing.

The Future of Emotional Psychology

While extensive research has been done on emotional psychology, much remains to be explored. As previously mentioned, emotional regulation benefits people with mental health conditions. Therefore, this is one area of focus.

Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is a branch of psychology closely related to but not the same as emotional psychology. It solely focuses on positive emotions and the power of positive thinking and encourages positive emotions.

The values of positive psychology include feeling good, engaging fully, doing good, and savoring pleasure. Importantly, being mindful and self-compassion are also stressed. 

It is particularly relevant as it ties in with emotional regulation as a key skill. There are opportunities for emotional psychology and positive psychology to overlap.

The collaboration between these two branches can encourage people to address their emotions through positive thinking by reframing their mindset.

Affective Neuroscience and Understanding Emotions

Emotions can also be studied from a physiological standpoint. Affective neuroscience is at the forefront of research regarding the study of emotions.

Despite the limitations of the scientific method in providing a complete understanding of emotions, it remains the standard methodology employed in this type of research.

According to one editorial in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, affective neuroscience is a promising young field within neuroscience. It is used to understand the basis of many psychopathologies and investigate the neural basis of what affects emotion and feelings.

In other words, neuroscience seeks to identify the specific biological and physiological processes underlying emotions, thereby allowing us to link the emotional experiences people recognize and label within different societies to their corresponding physical manifestations.

Emotional Circuitry

Affective neuroscience challenges these simplified views of emotions and tries to explain the complexities it takes to produce one emotion. It is the idea that hard-wired circuits within one’s brain are tied to certain emotions.

It is thought that there may be six or seven of these circuits in the brain. The seven universal circuits include shame, seeking, rage, fear, play, lust, care, and panic. These seven circuits are discovered in animals.

Significantly, these circuits interact with each other. For instance, distress signals are activated when one animal is separated from their pack, which triggers panic and activates care at the same time. Therefore the interaction between these circuits can build complex emotions.

Self Reflection Questions

While there is much theory about emotions, it is essential to understand that they can significantly impact an individual’s well-being. There are some questions one can ask themselves regarding their emotions.

  1. In terms of emotional behavior, how would I describe myself?
  2. Would others agree with my assessment of my emotional behavior?
  3. What are the reasons for my current mood?
  4. How might my mood affect my decision-making?
  5. Am I open to other perspectives? 

These questions require self-reflection and can lead to high emotional intelligence. There are some emotional regulation questionnaires available online as well. Overall, healthy self-expression is essential for well-being.


The Science of Emotion: Exploring the Basics of Emotional Psychology | UWA Online


Our Basic Emotions Infographic | List of Human Emotions | UWA Online

Cultural Differences in Emotional Expression | Paul Ekman Group

The Difference Between Feelings and Emotions | WFU Online.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional Regulation - Guided Meditation - Sahaja Online

Positive Psychology - Harvard Health

Clinical Affective Neuroscience

Hard-wired Emotional Circuits in the Brain? Yep. — EMDR Therapy - Wayzata, MN

Talking with preschoolers about emotions — Better Kid Care

Reading facial expressions of emotion

TU10: The 7 Circuits of Emotion – What Animals Can Teach Us About Human Relating

17 Emotional Intelligence Tests & Assessments (+ Free Quiz).

Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions - 2017 Update • Six Seconds


The contents of this article are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is always recommended to consult with a qualified healthcare provider before making any health-related changes or if you have any questions or concerns about your health. Anahana is not liable for any errors, omissions, or consequences that may occur from using the information provided.