Motivation and emotion/Tutorials/Core emotions

Tutorial 07: Core emotions

Resource type: this resource contains a tutorial or tutorial notes.

This is the seventh tutorial for the motivation and emotion unit of study.


  • Explores the psychological concept of core emotions – what are they?
  • A group exercise involves sorting hundreds of emotion words into a model which depicts underlying clusters of emotional experience.


There are many aspects of affective experience, but what are the criteria for a core emotion?

Does the affective state exhibit each of the following?

  1. Distinct neurological and physiological response? (e.g., pattern of brain activity, heart-rate)
  2. Distinct feeling? (i.e., subjective/phenomenological state)
  3. Unique expression? (e.g., facial expression and body language)
  4. Innate? (i.e., evident from birth)
  5. Adaptive function? (e.g., what is its purpose?)
  6. Short-lived (vs. moods which are longer-lived)
  7. Triggered by same circumstances each time? (i.e., has a specific causal trigger)?
  8. Universal (i.e., recognised by different cultures)


If an affective or psychological state is not an emotion, what else could it be?

There are several affective psychological experiences which do not qualify as emotions and may instead be better classified as:

  1. Attitudes (e.g., hate)
  2. Behaviours (e.g., aggression)
  3. Cognitions (e.g., confused)
  4. Disorders (e.g., depression, behavioural conduct disorder)
  5. Moods (e.g., grumpy)
  6. Personality traits (e.g., neuroticism)

Core emotionsEdit

What are the core emotions? Theoretical models typically identify about six to eight core emotions, usually including:

  1. Fear
  2. Anger
  3. Disgust
  4. Sadness
  5. Interest
  6. Joy
  7. Surprise
  8. Contempt

Emotion sort exerciseEdit

Emotion sort exercise under way ... the pre-COVID way ... with paper and scissors
Example of words sorted into a "sad" emotion category.

The goal of this exercise is to organise many (250+) emotion-related words into core emotion families:

  1. Open this list of emotion words
  2. Each person in the group selects an emotion word and classifies it as either a:
    1. member of a core emotion family or
    2. non-emotion word
  3. Change a classification if you disagree
  4. Repeat this process until all words are classified - a progress bar will be displayed
  5. Use chat or the comments column to discuss (e.g., unusual/unknown words or emotions you'd like to share about or want to know more about)
  6. As a whole class, discuss the results

Emotion knowledgeEdit

What is "emotion knowledge"?

The emotion sort exercise is partly designed to expand emotion knowledge, which refers to the range of different emotions a person can distinguish (e.g., various shades of anger).

Emotion knowledge is part of emotional literacy and emotional intelligence.

Emotion knowledge can be improved by expanding one's linguistic repertoire for describing emotions: "the finer and more sophisticated one's emotion knowledge is, the greater his or her capacity to respond to each life event with a specialised and highly appropriate reaction" (Reeve, 2009, p. 353).

For example, our vocabularies can act as a window into psychological and physical well-being. For a deeper dive, see the work of James Pennebaker, one of the study's authors, via Google Scholar.

Non-English emotion wordsEdit

Schadenfreude (pronounced shar-den-frood-ar) is a German word for pleasure that one may derive from the misfortune of another (e.g., laughing at someone slipping on a banana peel).
Friluftsliv (pronounced free-loofts-liv) is a Norwegian word for the practice of purposefully spending time outdoors and the physical and mental health benefits that this engenders.

There are many nuances of emotion that are not well described in the English language.

However, the good news is that there are plenty of non-English words from the 7,000 or so other human languages that capture subtleties in the kaleidoscope of feeling.

What words from other languages do you know that describe emotions?

Share one example (from your knowledge or the links below) and its definition with the class.

Lists of foreign emotion words:

What are the psychological implications of our emotional vocabulary? For example, consider the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (linguistic relativity) which argues that language enables experience. According to this essentialist view, our emotional vocabulary both enables and limits our capacity for emotional experience.

So, how about enriching your emotional world by learning a non-English emotion word today?


See alsoEdit

Additional tutorial material

External linksEdit