Emotions and Types of Emotional Responses

The Three Key Elements That Make Up Emotion

Emotions are reactions that human beings experience in response to events or situations. The type of emotion a person experiences is determined by the circumstance that triggers the emotion. For instance, a person experiences joy when they receive good news. A person experiences fear when they are threatened.

Emotions have a strong influence on our daily lives. We make decisions based on whether we are happy, angry, sad, bored, or frustrated. We choose activities and hobbies based on the emotions they incite. Understanding emotions can help us navigate life with greater ease and stability.

What Are Emotions?

In their book "Discovering Psychology," authors Don Hockenbury and Sandra E. Hockenbury suggest that an emotion is a complex psychological state that involves three distinct components: a subjective experience, a physiological response, and a behavioral or expressive response.

In addition to trying to define what emotions are, researchers have also tried to identify and classify the different types of emotions. The descriptions and insights have changed over time.

  • In 1972, psychologist Paul Ekman suggested that there are six basic emotions that are universal throughout human cultures: fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness, and sadness.
  • In the 1980s, Robert Plutchik introduced another emotion classification system known as the "wheel of emotions." This model demonstrated how different emotions can be combined or mixed together, much the way an artist mixes primary colors to create other colors.
  • In 1999, Ekman expanded his list to include a number of other basic emotions, including embarrassment, excitement, contempt, shame, pride, satisfaction, and amusement.

Plutchik proposed eight primary emotional dimensions: happiness vs. sadness, anger vs. fear, trust vs. disgust, and surprise vs. anticipation. These emotions can then be combined to create others (such as happiness + anticipation = excitement).

Key Elements of Emotions

In order to better understand what emotions are, let's focus on their three key elements, known as the subjective experience, the physiological response, and the behavioral response.

3 key elements of emotions
Verywell / Emily Roberts

Subjective Experience

While experts believe that there are a number of basic universal emotions that are experienced by people all over the world regardless of background or culture, researchers also believe that experiencing emotion can be highly subjective. Consider anger, for example. Is all anger the same? Your own experience might range from mild annoyance to blinding rage.

While we have broad labels for emotions such as "angry," "sad," or "happy," your own experience of these emotions may be much more multi-dimensional, hence subjective.

We also don't always experience pure forms of each emotion. Mixed emotions over different events or situations in our lives are common. When faced with starting a new job, you might feel both excited and nervous. Getting married or having a child might be marked by a wide variety of emotions ranging from joy to anxiety. These emotions might occur simultaneously, or you might feel them one after another.

Physiological Response

If you've ever felt your stomach lurch from anxiety or your heart palpate with fear, then you realize that emotions also cause strong physiological reactions.

Many of the physiological responses you experience during an emotion, such as sweaty palms or a racing heartbeat, are regulated by the sympathetic nervous system, a branch of the autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system controls involuntary body responses, such as blood flow and digestion. The sympathetic nervous system is charged with controlling the body's fight-or-flight reactions. When facing a threat, these responses automatically prepare your body to flee from danger or face the threat head-on.

While early studies of the physiology of emotion tended to focus on these autonomic responses, more recent research has targeted the brain's role in emotions. Brain scans have shown that the amygdala, part of the limbic system, plays an important role in emotion and fear in particular.

The amygdala itself is a tiny, almond-shaped structure that has been linked to motivational states such as hunger and thirst as well as memory and emotion. Researchers have used brain imaging to show that when people are shown threatening images, the amygdala becomes activated. Damage to the amygdala has also been shown to impair the fear response.

Behavioral Response

The final component is perhaps one that you are most familiar with—the actual expression of emotion. We spend a significant amount of time interpreting the emotional expressions of the people around us. Our ability to accurately understand these expressions is tied to what psychologists call emotional intelligence, and these expressions play a major part in our overall body language.

Research suggests that many expressions are universal, such as a smile to indicate happiness or a frown to indicate sadness.

Sociocultural norms also play a role in how we express and interpret emotions. In Japan, for example, people tend to mask displays of fear or disgust when an authority figure is present. People in the United States are more likely to express negative emotions both alone and in the presence of others, while people in Japan are more likely to do so while alone.

Theories of Emotion

Charles Darwin proposed the evolutionary theory of emotion, which suggests that emotions are adaptive to our environment and improve our chances of survival. For example, emotions like love are adaptive because they promote mating and reproduction. Emotions like fear keep us safe from predators.

The James-Lange theory maintains that our physical responses are responsible for emotion. If someone sneaks up on you and shouts, for instance, your heart rate increases. Your heart rate increase is what causes you to feel fear.

The facial-feedback theory elaborates on the James-Lange theory. It suggests that physical activity influences emotion—for instance, if you force a smile, you will feel happier than you would if you didn't smile at all.

The Cannon-Bard theory refutes the James-Lange theory, asserting that people experience emotional and physical responses at the same time.

The Schachter-Singer theory is a cognitive theory of emotion that suggests our thoughts are actually responsible for emotions. Similar to this theory is the cognitive appraisal theory. It posits that someone must first think before experiencing an emotion. For instance, your brain judges a situation as threatening, and as a result, you experience fear.

Types of Emotions

There are various theories as to how many types of emotions humans experience. As mentioned, psychologist Paul Ekman established the following six universal emotions:

  • Happiness: Many people strive for happiness, as it is a pleasant emotion accompanied by a sense of well-being and satisfaction. Happiness is often expressed by smiling or speaking in an upbeat tone of voice.
  • Sadness: All of us experience sadness now and then. Someone might express sadness by crying, being quiet, and/or withdrawing from others. Types of sadness include grief, hopelessness, and disappointment.
  • Fear: Fear can increase heart rate, cause racing thoughts, or trigger the fight-or-flight response. It can be a reaction to actual or perceived threats. Some people enjoy the adrenaline rush that accompanies fear in the form of watching scary movies, riding roller coasters, or skydiving.
  • Disgust: Disgust can be triggered by a physical experience, such as seeing or smelling rotting food, blood, or poor hygiene. Moral disgust may occur when someone sees another person doing something they find immoral or distasteful.
  • Anger: Anger can be expressed with facial expressions like frowning, yelling, or violent behavior. Anger can motivate you to make changes in your life, but you need to find a healthy outlet to express anger so it doesn't cause harm to yourself or others.
  • Surprise: Surprise can be pleasant or unpleasant. You might open your mouth or gasp when you're surprised. Surprise, like fear, can trigger the fight-or-flight response.

Emotions, Feelings, and Moods

In everyday language, people often use the terms emotions, feelings, and moods interchangeably, but these terms actually mean different things. An emotion is normally quite short-lived, but intense. Emotions are also likely to have a definite and identifiable cause. For example, after disagreeing with a friend over politics, you might experience anger.

Emotions are reactions to stimuli, but feelings are what we experience as a result of emotions. Feelings are influenced by our perception of the situation, which is why the same emotion can trigger different feelings among people experiencing it.

Take the example of disagreeing with your friend. You might both walk away from the conversation having experienced the emotion of anger.

Your anger might feel like frustration because you feel that your friend never listens to you when you speak. Your friend's anger, on the other hand, might feel like jealousy because they feel you know much more about the topic than they do. Both of you have the same emotion, but your feelings are different based on your separate interpretations.

A mood can be described as a temporary emotional state. Sometimes moods are caused by clear reasons—you might feel everything is going your way this week, so you're in a happy mood. But in many cases, it can be difficult to identify the specific cause of a mood. For example, you might find yourself feeling gloomy for several days without any clear, identifiable reason.

If you've been struggling with low mood or difficult emotions, talk to a doctor or a mental health professional about your concerns. They can offer support, guidance, and solutions that can help you get back to feeling your best. You can see our National Helpline Database to explore different resources that might help.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the primary emotions?

    Primary emotions are the emotions that humans experience universally. There are different theories as to what these specific emotions are, but they often include happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, and surprise.

  • What are negative emotions?

    All emotions can be positive or negative, but the emotions people usually call "negative" are the ones that can be unpleasant to experience and can cause disruption to daily life. Negative emotions include envy, anger, sadness, and fear.

  • What are some ways emotions affect your health?

    Research has shown that chronic fear can lead to anxiety, which is linked with inflammation and lowered immunity. Happiness is linked with a longer lifespan, whereas chronic sadness is linked with poorer physical health.

    Anger is linked with illnesses like heart disease and behaviors like smoking. It's healthy to experience all kinds of emotions, but to develop productive ways of expressing them so they don't take a negative toll on your health.

  • What are secondary emotions?

    Secondary emotions stem from—and are variations of—primary emotions. Sometimes, we have secondary emotions in response to our primary emotions (i.e., "I'm frustrated that I'm so sad"). Secondary emotions may include frustration, pride, envy, and jealousy.

A Word From Verywell

Most of us experience a wide variety of emotions. The feelings that stem from these emotions can feel overwhelming at times, but a helpful first step can simply be to label the emotion. Understand that it's OK to experience any type of emotion—even emotions that can be difficult to cope with like sadness or anger.

If you are having trouble coping with your emotions or feelings, consider talking to a mental healthcare professional who can help you address your concerns.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."