Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Core emotions

Core emotions:
What are the core emotions and what is their function?

Overview edit

Have you ever felt happy, sad, angry, or in fear of something? How about surprised, or even disgusted about something that just happened? Almost everybody has these different emotions from time to time, and they can have a large impact on the way people think and act. Because emotions have such a large effect on people’s lives they are often referred to as Core Emotions. There has been a lot of research gathered trying to understand how core emotions work.

This book chapter explains the notion of core emotions and how they function in our lives. Firstly, I will cover what emotions are in general, then I will define what Core Emotions are, and how the theory of Core Emotions was developed. Two psychologists figure largely in the development of the theory of Core Emotions. Paul Ekman identified that there are six Core Emotions - happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust (Basic Emotions, 1999). Robert Plutchik (6seconds, 2020) defined these six Core Emotions and formulated his model showing how complex emotions are made from combinations of Core Emotions. Lastly, I will explain what the key elements of Core Emotions are and how they are fundamental in everyone's lives.

Focus questions:

  • Why do I have emotions?
  • How do core emotions work?
  • What happens during an emotion?

What are emotions? edit

In psychology, an emotion is a complex psychological state triggered by different stimuli. It allows us to show how we feel by reacting a different way in significant or powerful situations. A person that smiles will generally be interpreted to mean that they are happy; a person with wide eyes and their mouth making an 'o' shape typically symbolises that they are surprised. Behind every emotion there is a process that typically starts with a stimulis, (i.e. You see your best friend after they have been away for a long time.), this then initiates an internal reaction, (i.e. you start remembering positive memories and you feel full of energy all of a sudden.), which results in a visible expression. (i.e. you start to smile and give your friend a hug.) (Smith, 2017)

Emotions are instinctive and uncontrollable. They are triggered by specific events that are beyond human nature and in some circumstances are used as a survival mechanism when faced with new or unsure situations. For example, when experiencing fear, the human body responds by initiating a 'fight or flight' mode which is an ancestral survival tool to get out of that situation either by fighting or fleeing. (McDougall, 1926).

Even in the early 1900s, emotions, and the study of emotions, was a common discussion topic among psychologists, as evidenced through Robert Plutchik's use of a quote by Joseph Jastrow, an early twentieth century psychologist. Plutchik must have had great regard for Jastrow as he used Jastrow's quote as an opening piece in his book about basic emotions (Plutchik, 1991).

"What is the Theory of Emotion?" Superstition, prejudice, dogma form a human record vast and dismal, a permanent warning of the damgers attending the life of reason. From moods to philosophies the affects rule." Joseph Jastrow, a polish born American psychologist."

Figure 1: Rabbit Duck optical illusion was "originally noted" by polish-American psychologist Joseph Jastrow in 1899.

As a side note, Joseph Jastrow, was a polish born American psychologist active in the early part of the twentieth century who was noted for inventions in experimental psychology, and became more widely known for discussions around various illustions, including the Rabbit Duck illusion. (Figure 1).

Figure 2: Paul Ekman- A Emotion Psychologist and creator of the 6 basic emotions theory

What are the six Core Emotions? edit

The Core Emotions or 'basic' emotions are primitive cognitive expressions of behavior that reflect the instinctual primal process of what one is feeling at that particular time, which allows us to communicate core motives and actions which is experienced by everyone regardless of culture or status. There are six main Core Emotions: sadness, fear, anger, disgust, surprise and happiness (joy). (Ekman, 2013)

Evolutionarily, we've developed these core emotions so that we can react to our environments faster than our thinking brains can comprehend. The origin of emotions is unknown. A major theory explaining basic emotions and how they were formed is that they are evolved and constructed from evolution and the variety of cultures. Basic emotions were evolved to handle fundamental life tasks. For example, happiness can aid the creation of development for it provides a positive evaluation of doing a task to a level of enjoyment and pride of achievement. which positive stimuli of being happy will then encourage growth in a given situation, idea or belief to evolve and develop even more. Fear and anger can aid survival by influencing an organism such as humans to either flee for safety or fight to defend itself (Gu et al., 2019).

Basic emotions are typically considered to be inherited and displayed since birth, as they are vital psychological controls for communication and survival. The Six Core Emotions theory was formulated by a psychologist Paul Ekman (figure 2). He theorised that there were six core emotions, as each variation of emotion was related back to a combination of six primitive emotions which were used for ancestral survival, while other emotion combinations evolved to become culturally and sociologically relevant. Ekman's development of the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) which was used to measure and record different facial movements displaying each emotion. This allowed him to discover the facial movement similarities of each emotion down to the six core emotions still recognised today (Ekman, 2013; see Figure 3).

6 Core Emotions: edit

The 6 core emotions theory was formulated by an American psychologist Paul Ekman in the 1980s. Paul Ekman did extensive work on human emotions and discovered that there are a handful of 'basic' emotions, which only differed from one or more dimensions, the most common ones being arousal, pleasantness and activity. In Ekman's article 'An Argument for Basic Emotions', (Ekman, 1992) Ekman discovered that seperate emotions differed in terms of how many different base emotions they recognised, and what specific characteristics they posit such emotions to share. The basic emotions he kept seeing in every emotion was a combination of the core emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust and surprise. More detail of each core emotion is to be found in the sections below.

Happiness edit

Happiness, in psychology, a state of emotional well-being that a person experiences when they are in a good mood. It's a pleasant emotion that is characterized by feels of joy, satisfaction, and contentment. There are different types of happiness. (Table 1)

Table 1
Types of happiness
Short-term happiness Happens from a current experience, which is often triggered by a positive stimuli.
Long-term happiness Overall sense of well-being and feel like your life and achievements is well lived.

A smile is the most common facial expression of happiness. Happiness plays a critical, societal role in everyday life as it is a signal of friendliness and assurance that one is not a threat. It also motivates people to strive in development and survival for themselves and others. (Pfeiffer, 2019)

Due to the alternating use of the words happiness and joy representing the same meaning throughout this chapter. The distinguishing factors between joy and happiness are that joy is an inner feeling, while happiness is an outwards expression. (The difference between joy and happiness, 2022)

Case study:

Billy walks past John and Emma on his way home from work. John notices there is always a smile on Billy's face and a spring in his step every afternoon when he walks past. Emma recalls that Billy is more cheerful going home from work then when Billy is going to work from home as he doesnt have a smile on his face and he walks more slowly.

Sadness edit

Sadness can be defined as a temporary emotional state characterized by feelings of disinterest, hopelessness, grief, and a low mood. Although the feeling of sadness is normally considered to be a negative emotion, it plays a critical role in signaling that one is in the need of help or comfort. If a person is experiencing prolonged exposure to sadness, it may lead to the development of a mental disorder called depression.

The most obvious sign of sadness is the angling of the inner corners of the eyebrows, crying, withdrawal from company and frowning.

Case study:

Jackson just broke up with his boyfriend, His mother Sally has not seen Jackson at all over the weekend since she saw him with tears running down his face and a noticeable red face as he rushed to his room.

Figure 3. Illustrations of different type of visual emotions

Fear edit

Fear is a survival emotion which triggered by a threat or danger. Although fear is known as a negative emotion, it serves a critical role because it activates the fight-or-flight response in dangerous situations which results to keeping you and others safe (McDougall, 1926). If a person is in a consistent state of panic caused by intense fear, they will likely develop mental disorders like anxiety and Post-traumatic stress disorder, or more commonly referred to as PTSD.

The facial expression of fear can be confused with surprise. Raising of one's eyebrows, open mouthed, white face, and normally follows by a scream or yell.

Case study:

Jake just witnessed some intoxicated person pull a knife on him while walking home late at night from a party. Jake seeing the knife, his body stiffened up, his eyes became wide and nearby neighbours recall hearing a loud scream from their houses. When Jake got home, his father noticed that Jake was shaking and his face was white.

Anger edit

Anger is a powerful emotion that is characterized by feelings of agitation and frustration from a stimuli. Some of the triggering stimuli could be high levels of stress, needs that have not been met, financial and health problems, and family issues to name a few examples. Anger is also part of our body's flight or fight response, which motivates us to protect ourselves and others from dangerous situations.

Anger can be a constructive tool if used in the right context and isn't out of proportion. It can make you become more focused or determined to find solutions to problems that are bothering you. However, if anger is not monitored and becomes a frequent emotion, it can easily result into harmful behaviour towards oneself and others as it can lead to aggression, abuse and violence.

Some common expresions of anger include, pulled eyebrows, glaring eyes, tightly pressed lips, shouting or high tone of voice. Anger can also be expressed physically by hitting, kicking, punching etc, or emotionally through swearing and using insulting to hurt others or objects around them.

Case study:

Ben is a builder on a construction site for one of the biggest companies in his town. His boss Sarah has asked him to hammer some wooden boarding down to make the frame for the next part of the project. Ben is new to this and still makes mistakes. The weather is hot and sunny outside where he has been asked to work. Ben accidently hit his thumb with the hammer while working as it was hard to see due to the sweat that was forming all over his face and running into his eyes. Sarah witnessed Ben yell and throw the hammer at the fence in frustration before pointing and shouting at another builder for laughing at his misfortune.

Disgust edit

Disgust is an emotion which is psychologically triggered by something that is unpleasant to anything we see, taste, touch, hear or smell. The emotion disgust has a critical role in informing us that whatever the stimuli is, it is experienced when something harmful to our mental, physical, or emotional well-being or something is not identified as healthy or normal and to signal to get away from it or eliminating it. Disgust response can be triggered by such things as blood, infection, poor hygiene, rot and death.

Moral disgust can also be experienced by people when they see something that is considered immoral, distasteful or evil.

Some common expressions of disgust include wrinkling of the nose, holding your nose and mouth, closing of eyes and looking away, and sneering. Some physical reactions to disgust would be retching, and or vomiting.

Case study:

Emma loves eating sandwiches for lunch when working in the office. She normally makes the sandwiches from whatever is inside her fridge back home. Today Emma forgot to pack her sandwich for inside her fridge before leaving home. Emma is hungry and remembers that she has left half a sandwich in the work fridge for moments like these. When lunch time arrives, Emma grabs the sandwich box from the work fridge and opens it. Emma doesn't feel hungry anymore and becomes nauseous when she noticed mold growing on the sandwich after she had already taken a couple of bites. Emma worries that she will become sick and decides to go to the doctor for a check up.

Surprise edit

Surprise is a physiological reaction to something unexpected. The emotion can be expressed in a positive, neutral, and negitive way depending on the given stimuli. Surprise can also be a trigger for the fight or flight response. Some common expressions of surprise are raised eyebrows, eyes opened wide, and a covered mouth with hands or a dropped jaw.

Case study:

Aiden covered his mouth and his eyes wide open before grinning wildly at the baby tooth his father gave to him. His father Geoff had tied a string to Aiden's front tooth and the door before slamming it shut before Aiden could register what just happened. Aiden's heart was beating fast before the tooth came out, now he is happy that the tooth fairy will come and visit him during the night.

Did you know?

Of all types of emotions, the briefest core emotion is surprise. Depending on the stimuli, surprise quickly disappears to anger, fear, happiness, or disgust. (Horkovska, 2022)

How do other forms of emotions occur? Basic vs complex emotions? edit

From a psychological perspective, there are six basic emotions in which a individual corresponds to: Joy, Fear, Sadness, Disgust, Surprise and Anger. Basic emotions are often held to be primitive building blocks of other complex emotions. The six basic core emotions, as explained earlier, were developed as a survival mechanism in response to the ecological challenges our remote ancestors was experienced to. while complex secondary emotions was evolved to meet sociocultural expectations we expect today (Horkovska, 2022).

Robert Plutchik, a well known psychologist, theorised that complex emotions were a mixture or combination of different core emotions. Each combination representing a different emotion (Table 2). Plutchik's wheel of emotions model was created in 1980, and consisted of four layers of emotions in a flower like shape showing the intensity of emotions from the centre, where it was most intense, to the edge or points of the wheel where it diluted to being less intense emotions. The model was actually shaped like a ice-cream cone, which unfolds to the emotions wheel (Figure 4). The core emotions were located in the middle layer ring (Plutchik, 1991). The wheel was also multicoloured, each 'petal' of the wheel was a core emotion. Each core emotion being a different colour. According to Plutchik's book 'The Emotions' (Plutchik, 1991), Plutchik referenced a recount from another psychologist named William McDougall explaining the connection between the use of the primary colour wheel and emotions. The recount explained that each colour represents an emotion, Red with Anger, Green with Trust, Blue with surprise etc. (Lampert, 2019). Just like the colour wheel, there are different shades of the same colour, which represent the intensity of different primary colours present in it. For example, a mixture of yellow and green (in terms of colour), and joy with trust (in terms of emotion), would create variations of lighter shades of green depending on the percentage of each colour used, which in turn creates the emotion of love. The colour wheel was implemented so that Plutchik could explain how core emotions, e.g. being joy and trust, would blend and combine together to create complex emotions like love. (6seconds, 2020)

Plutchik created this wheel to show that adjacent colours where similar to each other and were capable of combining to create different emotional variants as shown inTable 2, while opposites in the wheel, and rainbow, meant that some combination of core emotions would conflict with each other because a subjected stimuli would cause one emotion which is the opposite to another emotion. An example of conflicting emotions are to be found in Table 3. However, complex emotional combinations are capable of changing the intensity of the various core emotions experienced. For each petal in the emotion wheel, the intensity of the emotion can be seen most concentrated near the centre, and diluted on the edges - e.g rage (central) - anger - annoyance (edge or point of the petal).

Figure 4. Robert Plutchik's Wheel of emotions model. It shows the connections between basic emotions and complex emotions in a cone like structure.

Robert Plutchik's Wheel of emotions

Table 2
Pairs of basic emotions Definitions of complex emotions
Surprise + Sadness Disappointment
Disgust + Anger Contempt
Joy + Disgust Morbidness
Sadness + Anger Envy
Surprise + Anger Outrage
Joy + Surprise Delight
Fear + Disgust Shame
Joy + Fear Guilt
Fear + Surprise Alarm
Table 3
Conflict between basic emotions
Surprise + Disgust Conflict
Joy + Sadness
Fear + Anger

Are there different type of emotional experiences? edit

Emotional experiences are about how different people deal with different stimuli that they consider personally impactful. Emotional experiences insists of three components: A situational experience, and two responses; physiological and behavioural.

The situational experience edit

The situational experience also known as the stimulus, is what triggers an emotion simultaneously. The subjective experience evokes different emotions in different people regarding their personality, upbringing, culture, etc. However, it is the starting point of or emotions regardless.

The physiological response edit

When we are confronted by a stimuli, we simultaneously experience a physiological reaction. Many physiological responses are connected to the sympathetic nevous system. When activated, the typical physiological response generally increases our heart rate and trigger our fight or flight response which many psychologists think may have helped our former ancestors to evolve and survive throughout history. One common misunderstanding about physiological responses are that it must always lead directly to produce an action of some kind. This is not true, a physiological response definitely prepares the body for action; but whether the activiation into an action is dependent on factors regarding the context of the situational experience (stimuli), the consequeneces that might result due to the action and previous experieneces.

The behavioural response edit

In the behavioural response stage, if the person decides to take action. The actual expression of emotion occurs. One may laugh, cry, scream, frown or cover their face in response to the stimulis and what the physiological experience one is experiencing at that moment. The exact reaction to the situation varies for each person depending on their up-bringing or environment. Behavioral responses are a critical component as they signal to others around them how they are feeling or what the situation is. (Worthy et al., 2018), (Horkovska, 2022)

What are you?! edit

Test yourself with what core emotion you are!

Quiz yourself edit

1 What are the correct 6 core emotions?


2 Who came up with the wheel of emotions model?

Robert Plutchik
Paul Ekman
Charles Darwin

3 You are born with the core emotions,while you learn complex emotions later through different experiences and environmental stimuli.


Conclusion edit

So, what does all this mean to you? Have you discovered that you have indeed felt these 6 core emotions, and that everyone you know has too? Core emotions are the building blocks needed to actively function and survive in society. Without them, communication, awareness and emotional wellbeing would not be able to exist. Our new understanding of the key functions that occurs when we experience different emotions was explored, particularly how emotions are reactions from stimuli and that we can either respond psychologically and promit different behviours. Also explored was the work of two psychologists, Robert Plutchik and Paul Ekman, along with their discovery and contribution to the understanding of emotions, and the how each emotion is formed and how it plays a critical role both ecologically and socioculturally. These shared and unique characteristics are the products of our evolution, and that core emotions have evolved in their adaptive value in order to deal with fundimental life-tasks. (Ekman, 1992), allowing you to communicate and ultimately keep you alive!

See also edit

References edit

Ekman, P., 2013. Basic Emotions. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 29 August 2022].

Ekman, P. (1999). Basic Emotions. In T. Dalgleish and T. Power (Eds.) The Handbook of Cognition and Emotion Pp. 45–60. Sussex, U.K.: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Ekman, P. (1992). "An argument for basic emotions". Cognition and Emotion. (3): 169–200. CiteSeerX

Gu, S., Wang, F., Patel, N. P., Bourgeois, J. A., & Huang, J. H. (2019). A Model for Basic Emotions Using Observations of Behavior in Drosophila. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 781.

Horkovska, I. (2022). 6 Types of Basic Emotions and Their Effect on Human Behavior. Calmerry. Retrieved 16 October 2022, from

Lampert, D. Color Theory and Colors of Emotions. (2019). Retrieved 26 Novemeber 2022. Available at:,violet%20is%20associated%20with%20disgust.

Marchewka A, Wypych M, Michałowski JM, Sińczuk M, Wordecha M, Jednoróg K and Nowicka A (2016) What Is the Effect of Basic Emotions on Directed Forgetting? Investigating the Role of Basic Emotions in Memory. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 10:378. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00378

McDougall, W. "The Principal Instincts and the Primary Emotions." Chapter 3 in An Introduction to Social Psychology (Revised Edition). Boston: John W. Luce & Co. (1926): 47-92.

Our Basic Emotions Infographic | List of Human Emotions. UWA Online. (2019). Retrieved 16 October 2022, from

Pfeiffer, D. (2019). Short-term versus long-term pleasures. Medium. Retrieved 16 October 2022, from

Plutchik, Robert (16 September 1991). The Emotions. University Press of America. p. 110. ISBN 9780819182869. Retrieved 16 October 2022 – via Google Books.

"Robert Plutchik's Psychoevolutionary Theory of Basic Emotions" (PDF). Available at:

'Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions: Exploring the Emotion Wheel', (2020). 6seconds: The Emotional intellengence network. Retrieved 25 November 2022. Available at:

Smith R, Alkozei A and Killgore W (2017) How Do Emotions Work?. Front. Young Minds. 5:69. doi: 10.3389/frym.2017.00069

TenHouten, W. D. (2021). Basic emotion theory, social constructionism, and the universal ethogram. Social Science Information, 60(4), 610–630.

'The difference between joy and happiness', (2022)., Retrieved 22 Novemeber 2022, from,pursues%20happiness%20but%20chooses%20joy.

What Human Emotion Am I? Quiz | (2022). Retrieved 16 October 2022, from

Worthy, L., Lavigne, T., & Romero, F. (2018). Components of Emotions. Retrieved 16 October 2022, from

External links edit