The arguments for basic emotions

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A host of different writers and researchers have pledged to the cause of basic emotions (e.g., Arnold, 1960; Ekman, Friesen, & Ellsworth, 1982; Gray, 1982; Izard, 1971; James, 1884; Mowrer, 1960; Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 1987; Panksepp, 1982; Plutchik, 1980; Watson, 1930; see Table 3.1.

While acknowledging a diversity among proponents of the basic emotion concept, Ekman, Friesen, and Ellsworth (1972) have pointed out that every investigator has obtained evidence for a central list of six basic emotions: happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, anger, and disgust/contempt. This point was reiterated by Fridlund, Ekman, and Oster (1987). However, along with Oatley and Johnson-Laird (1987) we question the status of "surprise" because it is a cognitive component that could be present with any emotion, rather than being a unique emotion in itself; for example, one might experience "surprise" if Partick Thistle scored six goals against Glasgow Rangers, but only supporters of these teams are likely to experience emotion, or one could

3. COGNITIVE THEORIES OF EMOTION Table 3.1 A list of the major basic emotions theorists


Fundamental emotion

Basis for inclusion

Arnold (1960)

Ekman, Friesen & Ellsworth (1982)

Frijda (Personal Communication, 8 Sept 1986)

Gray (1982)

Izard (1971)

James (1884) McDougall (1926)

Mowrer (1960)

Oatley & Johnson-Laird (1987)

Panksepp (1982)

Plutchik (1980)

Tomkins (1984)

Watson (1930)

Weiner & Graham (1984)

Anger, aversion, courage, dejection, desire, despair, fear, hate, hope, love, sadness

Anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise

Desire, happiness, interest, surprise, wonder, sorrow

Rage and terror, anxiety, joy

Anger, contempt, disgust, distress, fear, guilt, interest, joy, shame, surprise

Fear, grief, love, rage

Anger, disgust, elation, fear, subjection, tender-emotion, wonder

Pain, pleasure

Anger, disgust, anxiety, happiness, sadness

Relation to action tendencies

Universal facial expressions Forms of action readiness

Hardwired Hardwired

Bodily involvement Relation to instincts

Unlearned emotional states

Do not require propositional content

Expectancy, fear, rage, panic Hardwired

Acceptance, anger, anticipation, disgust, joy, fear, sadness, surprise

Anger, interest, contempt, disgust, distress, fear, joy, shame, surprise

Fear, love, rage

Happiness, sadness

Relation to adaptive biological processes

Density of neural firing


Attribution dependent

Based on Ortony and Turner, 1990.

experience "surprise" if Albania lands a man on the moon but without any accompanying emotion. The general point to make is that there are many "affects"; that is, consciously experienced valenced states that are not related to emotion but are related to drive states (e.g., feeling hungry, feeling thirsty, feeling sexually aroused) or to other cognitive experiential states (e.g., interest, attentiveness, and surprise).

"Surprise" is not unequivocally an emotion state, therefore we would agree with Oatley and Johnson-Laird (1987) that it should not be included amongst the list of basic emotions.

Ekman (e.g., 1992) suggests nine characteristics that distinguish basic emotions: distinctive universals in antecedent events; distinct universal signals; distinctive physiology; presence in other primates; coherence among emotional response; quick onset; brief duration; automatic appraisal; and unbidden occurrence. In addition, we would also point to supporting evidence from the developmental priority of basic emotions (e.g., Lewis, 1993) and the linguistic analysis of emotion terms (e.g., Johnson-Laird & Oatley, 1989). We will now consider the first three of these categories in more detail.

Distinctive universals in antecedent events

We have argued above and in Chapter 2 that an analysis of appraisal scenarios provides the only meaningful way of distinguishing one emotion from another. Furthermore, we have suggested that the concept of basic emotions can most profitably be reduced to one of basic appraisal scenarios. This view has been most forcefully endorsed by Nancy Stein and her collaborators (see Stein & Trabasso, 1992, for a review). Perhaps the most important point to make about Stein's theory is that the nature of the appraisal associated with each basic emotion is defined functionally:

... the set of features used to discriminate between each basic emotion category is causally and temporarily linked to the status of goals and their outcomes. Goal states reflect either desired or undesired end-states, objects or activities. (Stein & Trabasso, 1992, p. 227)

This emphasis on functionality provides a set of parameters within which to address the pan-culturality of a core set of appraisal scenarios:

We assume that a small number of higher-order goals exist that are related to survival and self-regulation. These common goals guide behaviour and regulate the universal aspects of the appraisal and planning process. (Stein & Trabasso, 1992, p. 235)

In this analysis then, there exists a small number of core human goals that are shared across cultures. These goals are, in turn, associated with a core set of appraisal, planning, and action processes relating to the attainment, maintenance, and reinstatement of the goals. Basic emotions are seen as those that incorporate appraisal processes linked to these pan-cultural, universal goals.

To date, there is almost no research bearing directly on the issue of the universality of a small set of core appraisal scenarios because much of the work has been carried out with Western adults and children (see, e.g., Scherer, Schorr, & Johnstone, 2001). To summarise its conclusions, it seems that the following list of basic emotions emerges from appraisal research: happiness, fear, disgust, anger, sadness. There is clearly a need for methodologically rigorous cross-cultural data. Despite this, it is our view that the proposal of a small set of core appraisal scenarios offers the best theoretical position for the understanding of basic emotions.

Distinctive universal signals

Much of the research that has considered whether emotions can be distinguished from each other in terms of the way they are signalled has concentrated on facial expression, in contrast to the work considered earlier in support of dimensional approaches, which has focused on self-reported affect. The work on facial expression has shown that there are a small number of core (basic) emotions, each of which can be characterised by a unique configuration of facial musculature. This research tradition can be traced back to the writings of Descartes, which became the subject for a generation of French artists who depicted facial expressions of the passions on the basis of his treatise (see Figure 3.3).

Ekman offers this summary of the status of research on facial expression:

There is robust, consistent evidence of a distinctive, universal facial expression for anger, fear, enjoyment, sadness, and disgust. This evidence is based not just

Lj Colere—Anger

Figure 3.3 Depiction of emotion by Descartes.

Lj Colere—Anger

Figure 3.3 Depiction of emotion by Descartes.

on high agreement across literate and preliterate cultures in the labelling of what these expressions signal, but also from studies of the actual expression of emotion, both deliberate and spontaneous, and the association of expressions with social interactive contexts. (1992, pp. 175-176)

It is beyond the scope of this book to consider the evidence for differential facial expression between emotions in any great detail. A comprehensive review is provided in Ekman's edited book Emotion in the Human Face which is now in its second edition, and in an insightful exchange of articles by Russell (1994; see also Russell & Carroll, 1999), Ekman (1994), and Izard (1994). The empirical core of Ekman's thesis is a series of studies which seem to show that different cultures label emotions in the same way. The majority of these studies have used a forced-choice recognition methodology in which subjects have been presented with a series of posed facial expressions and asked to choose a suitable label from a small finite list. These studies show a remarkable amount of conformity across many different cultures.

The evidence for distinctive universal signals for a small set of emotions makes compelling reading and, for a number of scholars, the universality thesis as it has been labelled is seemingly carved in stone.

However, as well as the theoretical critiques we have offered above, several other authors (e.g., Ellsworth, 1991; Ortony & Turner, 1990; Russell, 1994; Russell & Carroll, 1999; Turner & Ortony, 1992) have questioned the universality thesis. Ortony and Turner (1990) argue that it is not facial expressions that are universal signals but the single muscle actions from which the expressions are compiled. In addition, Russell (1994; Russell & Carroll, 1999) has cogently argued that the methodological underpinnings of the research in support of the universality thesis are somewhat shaky. He suggests that the use of a forced-choice recognition methodology, for example, serves to elevate the level of agreement in the choice of emotion labels. When those studies that have allowed the subjects to label freely the facial expressions presented to them are considered, the recognition scores are generally lower. Russell also questions the use of posed expressions, the dependence on within-subject designs, the ways in which the stimuli are presented, and the lack of contextual information provided. Furthermore, he raises issues about the ecological validity of much of the research, pointing out that it has mostly been carried out on Westernised subjects. When one considers the handful of studies that have looked at isolated cultures, the data are far more equivocal and the methodologies far less satisfactory.

In sum, according to Russell the jury is still out on the question of distinctive universal signals. As Russell concludes:

This is a topic on which opinions can differ. The merits of alternative explanations cannot now be decided on the basis of the empirical evidence available and are therefore decided on the basis of a subjective judgement of plausibility ... many readers of this literature might find the universality thesis the most plausible alternative available. On the other hand, those who wait until the evidence compels them to decide must seek further evidence. (1994, p. 136)

To conclude, we have suggested that the search for a concept of basicness within behavioural correlates or signals of emotion such as facial expression is not conclu-

sive. Nor, we argue, can such a search ever be conclusive because the face is used for multiple signalling purposes of which emotion signalling is only one small part; thus, the same musculature contraction may signal very different things in different social contexts, only some of which may be emotion-related. Nonetheless, bearing in mind these theoretical and methodological reservations, the universality evidence has generated a list of basic emotions more or less consisting of: happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, anger, and disgust/contempt.

Emotion-specific physiology

As we have already noted, a number of writers have claimed distinctive patterns of autonomic nervous system activity for anger, fear, and disgust (Levenson et al., 1990) and possibly also for sadness (Levenson, Cartenson, Friesen, & Ekman, 1991). The rapid developments in affective neuroscience (e.g., Armony & LeDoux, 2000; Panksepp, 1998) have also permitted the examination of central neural mechanisms involved in emotion, and thereby supplement the earlier work on the peripheral neural mechanisms. The area of affective neuroscience is a rapidly developing one that we will not attempt to review fully, although we will draw on some of the exciting developments that are occurring. For example, the work of LeDoux and colleagues on fear conditioning in the rat (e.g., Armony & LeDoux, 2000) has identified the importance of a fast direct route via the thalamus to the amygdala, and a higher indirect route for slower more detailed processing via the cortex to the amygdala. Lesion studies have shown that either route is sufficient for conditioning to occur when the other route has been lesioned. The work of LeDoux and others has been widely applied to human studies (e.g., Dolan, 2000) which has led to considerable understanding of the central neural basis for fear. Similar developments have also begun to occur in our understanding of the neural mechanisms of disgust and anger, although there is much less understanding of possible mechanisms underlying sadness and happiness (Dalgleish, 2004). More detail will be presented where available in the second part of this book when we return to consider specific emotions.

Whether or not such dedicated neural circuits are eventually identified for sadness and happiness is not essential to the arguments in favour of basic emotions. As we have pointed out, we find it difficult to agree with the logic of the approach if it states that only those emotions that have dedicated neural circuits can be considered basic; such an approach is ultimately reductionistic and merely focuses on only one of the components of emotion. Indeed, the demonstration that fear conditioning can occur via a direct rapid route or via a slower cortical route (Armony & LeDoux, 2000) shows that even within the affective neuroscience of fear there is considerable complexity, with emotion mechanisms continuing to develop along with higher brain mechanisms. Perhaps no such straightforward dedicated neural circuit could ever be identified for happiness despite the classic work from Olds and Milner (1954) onwards on stimulation of the hypothalamus (see also Chapter 10), partly because happiness is a complex umbrella concept, but partly because happiness cannot simply be reduced to pleasure-related mechanisms, whatever the role of the hypothalamus in such mechanisms (Dalgleish, 2004).

It seems far more parsimonious to think of action- or behaviour-specific physi ologies than of emotional ones (see also Davidson, 1992). Nevertheless, we will briefly examine the data that exist which illustrate distinctive patterns of physiological activation for different emotions, in order to illustrate both the strengths and limits of this approach.

Many of the data in support of emotion-specific physiology, as with the findings on facial expression, have been provided by Ekman and his colleagues (see Figure 3.4 for a summary). However, the traffic has not all been one-way. Stemmler (1989) has argued that ANS patterning is specific to how a given emotion is elicited, rather than the emotion per se (though see Levenson, et al., 1990, for a reply to these criticisms). In addition, Davidson (1992, 2000) has argued that the variation in underlying physiology between different manifestations of the same emotion can be greater than the differences between emotions.

As with the debate concerning universal signals, it seems too early to draw a definitive conclusion about emotion-specific physiology. Theoretical logic would dictate, at least for us, that physiology is specified at the level of the requisite behaviours and it is this view that we feel obliged to endorse until the data on emotion-specific physiology prove incontrovertible. Nevertheless, this body of research claims to distinguish the following basic emotions: anger, fear, disgust, and sadness.

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  • steve geary
    What are distinctive universal signals in recognizing basic emotions?
    2 months ago

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