How Many Human Emotions Are There?

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Emotions rule so much of our lives. Writers and poets seem capable of coming up multitude ways to describe the experience and varieties of human emotion. On an everyday basis, we often resort to using metaphors to describe what we are experiencing inside. How often do you find yourself describing what you are feeling as being much like "butterflies in your stomach" or a "lump in your throat" or some other similar depiction?

Psychologist Robert Plutchick suggested that more than 90 different definitions of the term "emotion" have been put forth by psychologists. Compounding this difficulty is the fact that emotions are often so complex, varied, and internal. They tend to be deeply personal and even confusing at times. The fact that emotions are frequently mixed or that we are capable of experiencing more than one emotion at a time makes pinning down the exact nature and number of emotions that much more challenging.

If someone asked you to identify how many emotions there actually are, what would you guess? Tens? Hundreds? Thousands?

This question is hardly new. As early as the 4th century B.C., the philosopher Aristotle attempted to identify the exact number of core emotions. These were referred to as the 14 irreducible emotions, which he described as fear, confidence, anger, friendship, calm, enmity, shame, shamelessness, pity, kindness, envy, indignation, emulation, and contempt.

In his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin suggested that the ability to express emotion through the face had evolutionary advantages. He also suggested that many of these emotional expressions were universal.

More recently, psychologists have made a number of attempts to categorize and identify the exact number of emotions.

Surprisingly, when it comes to basic, universal emotions, there are actually far fewer than you may think. According to the best-known theories that classify the human emotional experience, there are anywhere from four to eight basic emotions.

The Wheel of Emotions

One of the most prominent of these theories is Robert Plutchik's wheel of emotions which identifies eight basic emotions - joy, sadness, trust, disgust, fear, anger, surprise, and anticipation. The wheel of emotion is likened to the color wheel in which the primary colors combine to form the secondary and complementary colors. These basic emotions then mix and combine to form a variety of feelings. For example, anticipation plus joy might combine to form optimism.

Six Universal Emotions

Other researchers suggest that there are around six or seven basic emotions that are experienced in cultures throughout the world. Psychologist Paul Eckman created what is known as the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), a taxonomy that measures the movements of all the face's 42 muscles as well as the movements of the head and eyes.

Eckman discovered that there were six facial expressions universal to people all over the world. These original six emotions he identified were happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, and disgust. He later went on to add a seventh emotion - contempt.

Or Are There Just Four Basic Emotions?

More recently, researchers asked participants to identify emotions based on the expressions of a realistic model. What they found was that fear and surprise engage the same muscles. Rather than representing two distinct emotions, they instead suggest that fear and surprise are simply variations of one basic emotion. Similarly, disgust and anger involve the exact same muscles, so they suggest that they represent variations of just one emotion. The researchers suggest that instead of six basic emotions, there are just four: happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. The more complex variations of emotions, they argue, have evolved from these foundational building blocks over the millennia.

"What our research shows is that not all facial muscles appear simultaneously during facial expressions, but rather develop over time supporting a hierarchical biologically-basic to socially-specific information over time," explained lead author Dr. Rachael Jack of the University of Glasglow.

Yet most of us would immediately argue that fear and surprise are distinct and separate emotions, as are anger and disgust. However, the researchers note that when the expression is first displayed, the muscles same muscles are engaged for fear and surprise. This distinction between fear/surprise and anger/disgust, they believe, is socially based. It is only later as the emotion is more fully expressed that the differences between the two emerge. The researchers believe that the expression of the basic emotions has a biological, survival basis while the differences that exist between fear/surprise and between disgust/anger evolved later on and for more social reasons.

So does this really mean that there are just four emotions? Certainly not. The research conducted by Jack and her colleagues suggests that there are four irreducible emotions, but this certainly does not mean that people are only capable of experiencing four emotional states. "Nobody in their right mind would say there are only four emotions," Jack clarified in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "That simply isn't true. Human beings have incredibly complex emotions."

The Expression of Emotions

While we might be able to identify such broad emotions, Eckman's research has revealed that the human face is capable of creating more than 7,000 different facial expressions. Emotions, and how we experience and express them, can be both abundantly apparent and remarkably subtle. The basic emotions, however many there really are, serve as the foundation for all the more complex and subtle emotions that make up the human experience.

Learn more about the psychology of emotion:


Darwin, C. (1872). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. London: John Murray

Jack, R. E., Garrod, O. G. B., & Schyns, P. G. (2014). Dynamic facial expressions of emotion transmit an evolving hierarchy of signals over time. Current Biology, 24(2), 187-192. DOI:

O'Carroll, E. (2014, April 7). How many basic emotions do you have? It's written on your face, say scientists. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from

Plutchik, R. (2001). The nature of emotions. American Scientist. 89(4), 344. DOI: 10.1511/2001.4.344

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