September 22, 2018
How Many Emotions Do We Have?
Expert Q&A

How Many Emotions Do We Have?

by Jeanine Barone  

Dacher KeltnerDacher Keltner, PhD, is a professor of psychology and director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory and the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. An expert on emotions, he co-authored a study in late 2017 revealing that human emotions are not limited to the typically recognized six—happy, sad, frightened, angry, surprised, and disgusted—but rather that there are 27 distinct emotions that we experience. (If you’re curious, they are, in alphabetical order: admiration, adoration, aesthetic appreciation, amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, awkwardness, boredom, calmness, confusion, craving, disgust, empathic pain, entrancement, excitement, fear, horror, interest, joy, nostalgia, relief, romance, sadness, satisfaction, sexual desire, and surprise.)

For the study, Keltner and colleagues analyzed the responses of more than 800 men and women to over 2,000 emotionally evocative video clips. They used the findings to create a multidimensional, interactive map to show how the 27 emotions relate to each other. The study appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

We asked Keltner a few questions about the study and the role that emotions play in our lives.

The original six emotions (happy, sad, etc.) each have corresponding, universally recognized facial expressions or body postures that are associated with them. Is the same true for all 27 of the emotions you’ve identified?

We have just published a series of papers that document universal displays for 22 emotions, many overlapping with the 27 emotions we focused on in this paper on experience. Ultimately, I think the science will land on that kind of number—that there are distinct facial/bodily/vocal signals for 22 to 25 emotions.

Can this work the other way around, too—that is, can changing our facial expression or posture in turn generate each of these emotions?

I think we are close to showing that there are distinct multimodal expressions of the 27 emotions we studied in the paper of interest. So the question is, if we move our faces and bodies in the patterns of these multimodal expressions of 27 emotions, will we experience the distinct emotion? This is a controversial question, but there are data suggesting that when we move our bodies in emotion-specific ways, specific experiences and patterns of perceiving the world ensue.

Do the emotions you’ve identified also have physiological responses in the body, such as changes in heart rate, muscle tone, and so forth?

Right now, the field has established somewhat distinct bodily responses for about 15 emotions in peer-reviewed research. Here are some examples:

  • Anger: heart rate elevation, blood flow increases to the hands, presumably to distribute resources to the hands to aid in combat.
  • Fear: heart rate elevation, blood flow is reduced in the hands.
  • Disgust: heart rate deceleration.
  • Awe: the chills/goosebumps.
  • Embarrassment: blushing.
  • Amusement: deepening of respiration.
  • Contentment: complete bodily relaxation.

As humans, do we all have—or need—all of these emotions?

I believe that every emotion that will prove to be defined by the hallmark behaviors—distinct expression, physiological response, systematic influence upon how we perceive and judge the world—has been shaped by evolution to enable humans to meet specific challenges and opportunities important to our survival. In this broader sense, we need many emotions. Anger is such a classic example here. In many debates, people propose that societies would be healthier without anger. But a recent review finds that most social justice movements that bring about effective social change are guided by anger.

Whether individuals need all of the emotions we’ve identified depends on their life, social, and historical context. For example, envy motivates actions that reduce inequality. Wouldn't it be nice to live in a more egalitarian culture where such an emotion wouldn't define our daily living? There is a new literature on "emodiversity," showing that people who experience a rich array of emotions, both positive and negative, are healthier and happier.

How many of the 27 emotions you’ve identified are universally recognized across cultures?

We have evidence right now, from the papers on the facial and vocal signals of emotions that I mentioned earlier, that about 20 emotions are recognized in similar fashion in radically different cultures in terms of religion, economics, politics—including China, the U.S., India, and New Zealand, for example.

You found that there is often a blending of emotions rather than an emotion being pure. What are the implications of this?

Both are true. There are relatively pure emotions at the center of the 27 categories of emotion. And on the boundaries, there are fascinating experiences of emotional blends—for example, the blend between amusement and adoration, or sympathy and love. This too is a key insight: A lot of emotional experience is not pure, but involves complex mixtures of states.

Are there benefits to our knowing or becoming aware of these 27 emotions in ourselves?

Yes. We know the richer our understanding of emotions—also called emotional intelligence—the more smoothly we navigate interactions at work and at home, and the happier and healthier we tend to be.

This opinion does not necessarily reflect the views of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health or of the Editorial Board at BerkeleyWellness.com.

Also see our earlier interviews with Dacher Keltner on the corrupting effects of power and how wealth can reduce compassion.