The Story of Emotions

Aug 24 2011

The evolution of emotions

Although some key emotions can be clearly seen on our faces (read more here), our emotional lives are complex and intricately bound into the behavioural strategies we have evolved over thousands (perhaps millions) of years to improve our chances of survival and success. Each emotion tells a story about our immediate goals, our perception of the context we find ourselves in, and our interpretation of the events in our lives.

Darwin was ahead of his time in applying the concepts of evolution not only too biological change but also to the development of human psychology and in Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals he described many of the parallels in the way emotions are expressed by different organisms including humans. Robert Plutchik has taken the insights of Darwin and many other scientist to develop a compelling model of how emotions arise from fundamental biological strategies for achieving our goals in life. At their most basic level, and especially in more simple organisms, there are two possible responses to an external stimulus: approach or avoid. Even a simple organism on a pond uses a chemical detection system (the original nose and also the original brain!), to interpret the chemical gradient of the water and work out where nutrients are more likely to be and where toxins are less likely to be.

Emotional stories

In his original work, Plutchik throught of emotion in this way, “An emotion may be defined as a patterned bodily reaction of either destruction, reproduction, incorporation, orientation, protection, deprivation, rejection or exploration, or some combination of these, which is brought about by a stimulus.” The model he constructs of emotions is postulated on a number of assumptions including the following:

  1. Emotions are applicable to all evolutionary levels (ie to animals as well as humans)
  2. Emotions play an adaptive role in helping us deal with key survival issues posed by the environment (including other people)
  3. There are a small number of primary emotions (8 in this model)
  4. All other emotions are a combination or mixture of these primary ones
  5. All primary emotions have opposites
  6. All emotions exist at different levels of intensity (arousal)

In his later model (which is explored more here), he linked eight basic emotions of anger, anticipation, joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness and disgust to these eight behaviours.  Let’s take each one in turn as they form a model of the basic emotions which can be used to create and interpret consumer stories.

Anger is the emotion associated with an obstacle in the external environment, leading to an interpretation of an ‘enemy’ or threat requiring an attacking behaviour in order to destroy the obstacle (ie destruction). Anger may be one of the oldest emotions of all, and an expression of our vitality and instinct for survival. Although the aim of destruction is not pleasurable in itself, the release from anxiety and frustration following the destruction may be associated with pleasure (so anger is also a form of tension release). There are some interesting and revealing colloquial descriptions of anger in English including, ‘hot under the collar’, ‘in a sweat’, ‘purple with rage’, ‘seeing red’, ‘gnashing the teeth’, ‘bristling with rage’, ‘fighting mad’, ‘breathing fire’, etc.  Many of these focus on temperature, colour and body movements, referencing not only human reactions but those of other animals too.

Anticipation is the emotion associated with seeing a ‘new territory ‘ in the external environment, leading to an interpretation of requiring examination or investigation so that the new territory can be mapped and understood in order to build knowledge (ie exploration). Play is associated with anticipation, and exploring behaviours are highly rewarding in the brain of children and a critical part of learning.  These behaviours are associated with creativity and the arts in later life.

Joy (or happiness) is the emotion associated with gaining something of value from the external environment, leading to an interpretation of possession which we would like to continue or repeat in order to gain resources from the outside world (ie reproduction).  This emotion is also closely bound up with our drive to reproduce, and is often closely associated with (and in some ways the reverse of) anger.  It is true that both self-preservation and love instincts need a certain amount of aggression (or to use a softer phrase commitment) in order to gain satisfaction.  [As an aside, sexual arousal is often seen in the expression of anger among humans and aninals.] Joy is also typified by an expansion of ourselves outwards, and therefore even closer to anticipation.

Trust is the emotion associated with meeting a member of our in-group leading to an interpretation of ‘friend’ and grooming behaviour  in order to gain and build mutual support (ie incorporation).  Robin Dunbar argues that gossip has evolved from primate grooming behaviour and is an easier way to build trust through mutual ‘petting’ within the larger social groups which typify humans versus other primates.

Fear is the emotion associated with seeing a threat in the external environment, leading to an interpretation of danger and behaviours which help us escape to safety (ie protection).  The freeze-flight-fight-forfeit principle is explained here. Fear is the opposite of anger.

Surprise is the emotion associated with an unexpected event in the external environment, leading to an interpretation of ‘what is it?’ and ‘wait and see’ behaviour which help us to stop and gain time to orient ourselves to the event or object (ie orientation). Surprise is more often associated with novel stimuli in the environment, which are often dangerous, and therefore often leads to fear which leads on from the initial surprise. Surprise is the opposite of anticipation.

Sadness is the emotion associated with losing something of value, leading to an interpretation of abandonment and often associated with crying behaviours and others which reflect a desire to reattach to what we have lost (ie deprivation).  This often leads to highly passive and lethargic behaviours and associated slowing down of the bodies functions. Sadness is the opposite of joy. Bowlby observed “protest, despair and detachment” in young children who had been removed from their mothers, and these reactions are seen in adults too.

Disgust is the emotion associated with something which is considered ‘unpalatable’ (originally food, but for humans this may also be an idea which is unpalatable), linked to an interpretation of something poisonous which needs to be rejected from the body (or the mind) allowing us to eject the poison and keep our bodies (and minds) safe and uncontaminated (ie rejection). Even newly born infants show disgust at foods which may be poisonous (sour or bitter), although they haven’t yet learnt to show disgust at faeces and other substances and ideas which they may ‘learn’ to feel disgusted at. In language we often describe non-food items as sweet, bitter, harsh, etc. Disgust is the opposite of trust.

Every emotion tells a story

Each emotion tells a story about our goals and how we achieve them, the context in which we find ourselves, our behaviours and our interpretation of events in the outside world.  Our emotional worlds are much richer than these eight basic emotions, and in Plutchik’s model we can see the core emotions combined to provide a rich tapestry of more subtle emotions (more on this here).

For example, anticipation and anger combine to give ‘aggressiveness’, joy and anticipation give ‘optimism’, disgust and anger give ‘contempt’, fear and surprise give ‘alarm’ (or ‘awe’), joy and trust give ‘love’, sadness and disgust give ‘remorse’, surprise and sadness give ‘disappointment’ and trust and fear give ‘submission’.  You can see these combinations in the pie chart near the top of the article and the full model with different intensities is given below.

The emotions are the key to learning and the key to creating great stories which ‘stick’ with businesses and consumers. Our emotional worlds are a rich source of material and each emotion tells a story in itself.


Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin (1872)

The Emotions (Revised edition) by Robert Plutchik (1990)

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