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Are There Basic Biological Emotions? Maybe Not

Are There Basic Biological Emotions? Maybe NotFor the past 100 years or so, psychologists have supported the notion that all humans have the same set of basic biological emotions. But a new paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science challenges this belief and holds that some of our established security procedures may be misguided.

In her article, clinical psychologist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University said a current method to train security workers to recognize “basic” emotions from expressions might be ill-advised, potentially placing individuals at risk.

“What I decided to do in this paper is remind readers of the evidence that runs contrary to the view that certain emotions are biologically basic, so that people scowl only when they’re angry or pout only when they’re sad,” said Barrett.

The commonly held belief is that certain facial muscle movements (called expressions) evolved to express certain mental states and prepare the body to react in stereotyped ways to certain situations.

For example, widening the eyes when you’re scared might help you take in more information about the scene, while also signaling to the people around you that something dangerous is happening.

But Barrett (along with a minority of other scientists) thinks that expressions are not inborn emotional signals that are automatically expressed on the face.

“When do you ever see somebody pout in sadness? When it’s a symbol,” she said. “Like in cartoons or very bad movies.” People pout when they want to look sad, not necessarily when they actually feel sad, she said.

Some scientists have proposed that emotions regulate your physical response to a situation, but there’s no evidence, for example, that a certain emotion usually produces the same physical changes each time it is experienced, Barrett said.

“There’s tremendous variety in what people do and what their bodies and faces do in anger or sadness or in fear,” she said. People do a lot of things when they’re angry. Sometimes they yell; sometimes they smile.

“Textbooks in introductory psychology says that there are about seven, plus or minus two, biologically basic emotions that have a designated expression that can be recognized by everybody in the world, and the evidence I review in this paper just doesn’t support that view,” she said.

Rather than lumping all emotions into a few categories, Barrett believes psychologists should work on understanding how people vary in expressing their emotions. Her work is also relevant for how clinicians are trained and for the security industry as well.

Given the threat of terrorism, security training has focused on helping officers identify people who may be a threat.

“There’s a lot of evidence that there is no signature for fear or anger or sadness that you could detect in another person,” Barrett said. “If you want to improve your accuracy in reading emotion in another person, you have to also take the context into account.”

The theory that emotional expressions evolved for specific functions is normally attributed to Charles Darwin, in his book “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.”

However, according to Barrett, Darwin didn’t write that emotional expressions are functional. “If you’re going to cite Darwin as evidence that you’re right, you’d better cite him correctly,” Barrett said.

She suggests that Darwin thought emotional expressions — smiles, frowns, and so on — were akin to the vestigial tailbone and occurred even though they are of no use.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Are There Basic Biological Emotions? Maybe Not

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Are There Basic Biological Emotions? Maybe Not. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 14 Dec 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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