What are the different methods used for classifying emotions?

Emotions play a crucial role in our daily lives, influencing our thoughts, behaviors, and overall well-being. With the growing interest in understanding and managing emotions, researchers and psychologists have developed various methods for classifying emotions. These methods aim to categorize and organize the complex and often overwhelming range of emotions we experience. In this article, we will explore the different methods used for classifying emotions, their origins, and how they are applied in various fields such as psychology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. By understanding these methods, we can gain a deeper understanding of our emotions and their impact on our lives.

The means by which we distinguish one emotion from another is a hotly contested issue in emotion research and affective science. This page summarises some of the major theories.


Basic and Complex Emotions

Many theorists define some emotions as basic where others are complex. Basic emotions are claimed to be biologically fixed, innate and as a result universal to all humans and many animals as well. Complex emotions are then either refined versions of basic emotions, culturally specific or idiosyncratic. A major issue is to define which emotions are basic and which are complex.

One of the problems here is that there is no consensus on the method by which basic emotions can be determined. Theorists can point to universals in facial expression (e.g. Ekman), distinctive physiological symptoms (e.g. the blush of embarrassment), or labels common to different languages. Moreover there should be some plausible developmental story concerning how the various non-basic emotions can be grounded in the basic ones.

  • The Li Chi: Joy, anger, sadness, fear, love, disliking and liking (1st Century BC Chinese encyclopedia, cited in Russell 1991: 426).
  • The Stoics: Pleasure/delight, distress, appetite and fear (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, iv: 13-15).
  • René Descartes: Wonder, love, hatred, desire, joy and sadness (Passions, 353).
  • Baruch Spinoza: Pleasure, pain and desire (Ethics, pt. III, prop. 59).
  • Thomas Hobbes: Appetite, desire, love, aversion, hate, joy and grief (Leviathan, pt. I, ch. 6).
  • Paul Ekman (1972): Anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.
  • Paul Ekman (1999): Amusement, anger, contempt, contentment, disgust, embarrassment, excitement, fear, guilt, happiness, pride in achievement, relief, sadness/distress, satisfaction, sensory pleasure, shame, and surprise.
  • Jesse Prinz (2004): Frustration, panic, anxiety, physical disgust, separation distress, aversive self-consciousness, satisfaction, stimulation and attachment.


Social v Non-social Distinction

Emotions can also be classified according to those that can occur when the individual is alone and not thinking about others, and those that seem more essentially socially directed. Examples of proposed social emotions include jealousy, love, hatred, guilt and gratitude. A current work by Rechter, Levontin and Kluger from the Hebrew University is done classifying and grouping social emotions, while relating and distinguishing them from non-social, or general, emotions.


Dimensional Models of Emotion

For both theoretical and practical reasons some researchers define emotions according to one or more dimensions. A popular version of this is Russell’s (1979) dimensional, or circumplex model, which uses the models of arousal and valence. Other dimensions have more recently been suggested, for example ‘potency’ or power.


Plutchik’s Model

Robert Plutchik offers a three-dimensional model that is a hybrid of both basic-complex categories and dimensional theories. It arranges emotions in concentric circles where inner circles are more basic and outer circles more complex. Notably outer circles are also formed by blending the inner circle emotions.


Culturally specific emotions

One of the barriers to establishing a taxonomy of the emotions is that different cultures do not always recognise the same emotions in their languages. In some cases, the expressive behaviours, judgements or appropriate reactions associated with an emotion term are different. Moreover, a number of cultures have terms for emotions that have no direct equivalent in the English language. The following is a list of emotion terms that are deemed culturally specific in this sense:

  • Acedia (Europe Middle Ages and Renaissance): Spiritual torpor or aversion to religious imagery, suggested as arising from boredom induced by repetitive nature of worship, (Harre 1986 cited in Prinz 2004: 148).
  • Amae (Japan): Feeling of dependency akin to what infants feel towards their mothers. Important for bonding individuals to each other and cherished institutions. (Prinz 2004: 131).
  • Awumbuk (Baining of Papua New Guinea): Sadness, tiredness or boredom caused by the departure of visitors, friends or relatives, (Russell 1991: 432).
  • Fago (Ifaluk): A combination of love, compassion and sadness, (Lutz 1988, cited in Prinz 2004: 147).
  • Gezellig (the Netherlands): Similar meaning to English word ‘cozy’, but occurring in the presence of other people, (Harre, 1986, Doi, 1973 cited in Prinz 2004: 131). Very similar the German word Gemütlich.
  • Ijirashii (Japan): Arising when seeing someone praiseworthy overcome an obstacle, (Matsumoto 1994 cited in Prinz 2004: 140).
  • Ker (Ifaluk): Pleasant surprise, (cited in Goldie 2000: 91).
  • Liget (Ilongot people): Aroused by situations of grief but closely related to anger, can inspire headhunting expeditions, (Rosaldo 1980 cited in Prinz 147).
  • Malu (Dusun Baguk, Malaysia): Overlapping of shame and embarrassment, can be elicited by being in the presence of a person of higher rank, (Fessler 1999 cited in Prinz 2004: 156)
  • Nginyiwarrarringu (Pintupi Aborigines of the Western Australian Desert): A sudden fear that leads one to stand up to see what caused it, (Russell 1991: 431)
  • Rus (Ifaluk): Unpleasant surprise, cited in Goldie 2000: 91).
  • Schadenfreude (Germany): Feeling of joy triggered by perception of someone suffering.
  • Song (Ifaluk people, Micronesia): Close to anger, or admonition, with moralistic overtones and no disposition to revenge. (Lutz 1988 cited in Prinz 2004: 147).
  • Sram (Russia): Shame specifically focused on sexual indecency, originating in religious discourse—also used as a noun denoting pudenda, or to prefix a location name in which sexual activity occurs (such as a red light district)
  • Vergüenza Ajena / Pena Ajena: Also known as ‘Spanish Shame’—sense of shame on behalf of another person, even though that person may not experience shame themselves—for example, cringing when watching a very bad comic—generally more intense when the other is well known to you, though possible even when you dislike the other person—similar to the Dutch term plaatsvervangende schaamte and the German term Fremdschämen— ‘external shame’ or ‘vicarious embarrassment’, being vicariously embarrassed by someone else. The humor enacted by video clips of very bad auditions for televised talent shows leverage the vicarious pain of this emotion.

Prinz 2004 also cites patriotism as an emotion specific to Western cultures.


Culturally specific phobias or emotion syndromes

  • Koro (Assam and South Chinese): An intense anxiety that penis, breasts or vulva may retract into the body, (Yap 1965, cited in Prinz 2004: 136).
  • Latah (Malaysia): Affecting middle aged women, an exaggerated startle reflex, outbursts of profanity and disposition to repeat whatever they hear. Cf. Mali-Mali in Philippines, yuan in Burma, ikota in Siberia, jumping mania in French Canadians of Main (Simons 1996, cited in Prinz 2004: 136).
  • Pa-leng (China): A morbid fear of the cold even in hot weather, associated with a yin-yang imbalance (too little yang), (Kleinman 1980, cited in Prinz 2004: 136).
  • Pibloktoq (Greenland Intuits): A fear causing sufferers to scream, tear off their clothing, break things, eat feces before collapsing into seizures, followed by deep sleep and loss of memory of the incident, (Yap 1974 cited in Prinz 2004: 135). Cf. amok in Malaysia and phii bod in Thailand. (Simons and Hughes 1993 cited in Prinz 2004: 136).
  • Wild pig syndrome (Gururumba, New Guinea): Said to be caused when bitten by the ghosts of their ancestors, this syndrome affects young men entering maturity who begin running wild, stealing and shooting arrows for a few days. Cure involves being held over a smoking fire (Averill 1980, Griffiths 1997, Newman 1965, cited in Prinz 2004: 136).
  • Witiko/Windigo (Algonquian Indians): A fear that one has been transformed into a cannibalistic monster, (Trimble, Monson, Dinges & Medicine 1984, cited in Prinz 2004: 135).

Prinz, 2004, also cites anorexia nervosa as a culture specific syndrome found in Western cultures. See also this list of phobias, some of which may be culturally specific.

Scroll to Top