Discrete emotion theory

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Discrete emotion theory is the claim that there are a small number of core emotions, typically six to ten or so. For example, Silvan Tomkins (1962) concluded that there are eight: surprise, interest, joy, rage, fear, disgust, shame, and anguish. This theory states that these specific core emotions are biologically determined emotional responses whose expression and recognition is fundamentally the same for all individuals regardless of ethnic or cultural differences.


The biological and physiological underpinnings of emotions were discussed[1] by Aristotle in De Anima, by Charles Darwin in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), by William James (1884),[2] and by John Dewey (1895).[3]

Tomkins' (1962, 1963) idea was influenced by Darwin's concept. He proposed that there is a limited number of pancultural basic emotions or "affect programs". His conclusion was that there are eight pancultural affect programs: surprise, interest, joy, rage, fear, disgust, shame, and anguish.

John Watson believed that emotions could be described in physical states.

Edwin Newman and colleagues who believed emotions were a combination of one's experiences, physiology, and behaviour.

Floyd Allport came up with the facial feedback hypothesis.[citation needed]

After performing a series of cross-cultural studies, Paul Ekman and Carroll Izard reported that there are various similarities in the way people across the world produce and recognize the facial expressions of at least six emotions.[4]

Evidence for the theory[edit]

A study investigated whether the emotions behind specific facial expressions could be identified by people from a group in New Guinea who had had little to no exposure to Westerners and who had never seen a movie. The researchers showed the people pictures of people portraying seven different emotions that are known as core emotions: happiness, anger, sadness, disgust, surprise, fear, and contempt. Researchers found that the people of New Guinea could in fact point out the different emotions and distinguish between them.[5]

Various parts in the brain can trigger different emotions. For example, the amygdala is the locus of fear. The amygdala senses fear and it orchestrates physical actions and emotions.[6] From this experiment, researchers concluded that these specific emotions are innate. They also looked at pictures of people ranging in age from infants to elders, and saw that the core emotions look the same, further supporting the discrete emotion hypothesis. Additionally, deaf and blind children show typical facial expressions for these same core emotions.


James Russell and Lisa Barrett[6] have criticized[1] discrete emotion theory on several points. Those include problems in finding correspondences between discrete emotions and brain activity, variability in facial expressions and behavior,[7] and gradations in emotional responses.

See also[edit]


  • Tomkins, Silvan S. (1962), Affect Imagery Consciousness: Volume I, The Positive Affects. London: Tavistock.
  • Tomkins, Silvan S. (1963), Affect Imagery Consciousness: Volume II, The Negative Affects.


  1. ^ a b Colombetti, Giovanna (2009). "From affect programs to dynamical discrete emotions". Philosophical Psychology 22 (4): 407–425. doi:10.1080/09515080903153600. ISSN 0951-5089. 
  2. ^ James, William (1884). "What is an Emotion?". Mind. os-IX (34): 188–205. doi:10.1093/mind/os-IX.34.188. ISSN 0026-4423. 
  3. ^ Dewey, John (1895). "The theory of emotion.". Psychological Review 2 (1): 13–32. doi:10.1037/h0070927. ISSN 0033-295X. 
  4. ^ Paul Ekman (20 March 2007). Emotions Revealed, Second Edition: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. Henry Holt and Company. pp. 13–. ISBN 978-0-8050-8339-2. 
  5. ^ Ekman, Paul; Friesen, Wallace V. (1971). "Constants Across Cultures in the Face and Emotion" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 17 (2): 124–129. doi:10.1037/h0030377. Retrieved 27 February 2015. 
  6. ^ a b Barrett, Lisa Feldman; Gendron, Maria; Huang, Yang-Ming (2009). "Do discrete emotions exist?". Philosophical Psychology 22 (4): 427–437. doi:10.1080/09515080903153634. ISSN 0951-5089. 
  7. ^ Barrett, Lisa Feldman (2009). "Variety is the spice of life: A psychological construction approach to understanding variability in emotion". Cognition & Emotion 23 (7): 1284–1306. doi:10.1080/02699930902985894. ISSN 0269-9931.