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What are the 8 major emotions?

Emotions play a fundamental role in the human experience. They motivate our behavior, influence our thoughts, and shape our interactions with others. While the range of human emotions is incredibly complex, psychologists have identified 8 major emotions that capture core affective states. In this article, we will explore what these 8 major emotions are and why they matter.

The 8 Major Emotions

Psychologists generally agree that there are 8 major emotions that are universal across cultures. These core emotions include:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Disgust
  • Surprise
  • Trust
  • Joy
  • Anticipation

While we experience many different nuanced emotions in our daily lives, these 8 major emotions are considered the basic emotions that serve as the foundation. Each emotion has a distinct feeling and purpose that drives behavior.


Anger arises in response to perceived threats, injustice, wrongdoing, or threats to self-worth. It is an emotion that is felt in response to frustration or harm. The purpose of anger is correcting wrongs and bringing about change. It helps motivate us to take action against threats and wrongs done against oneself or others. However, excessive anger can be problematic and lead to aggression if not properly regulated.


Fear is an emotion caused by perceived danger or threat. It serves the evolutionary purpose of survival by prompting us to either confront or avoid threats to wellbeing. Fear mobilizes the body to take action through the “fight or flight” response. While some fear is healthy and adaptive, excessive fear and anxiety can be maladaptive and detrimental.


Sadness is felt in response to loss, disappointment, and general distress. It is a normal reaction to upsetting events or situations. Sadness brings down mood and motivation levels to promote introspection and disengagement from goals that may no longer be attainable. This allows shifting of focus to what can still be done. Prolonged and severe sadness that impairs functioning may be indicative of depression.


Disgust is elicited by revulsion towards things considered distasteful, unpleasant, or offensive. It promotes avoidance of harmful foods, animals, objects, and people. Disgust is a protective reaction that helps prevent dangerous substances from being ingested and avoids infectious disease. However, too much disgust can be detrimental and result in things like contamination fears or food aversions.


Surprise is a brief emotional response to unexpected events or situations. It leads to greater situational alertness and analysis of the surprising stimulus. Surprise can be positive or negative depending on whether the unexpected event is pleasant or unpleasant. It causes a brief increase in arousal and attention to quickly make sense of and react to the new information.


Trust is the positive emotion felt when there is confidence in someone or something. It is key to bonding and attachment in interpersonal relationships. Trust allows for intimacy and support. It also facilitates cooperation between individuals and in groups. Violations of trust through dishonesty, disloyalty, or betrayal provoke strong negative emotional reactions.


Joy arises in response to encounters, events, and relationships that are pleasurable. It is elicited by things like comfort, connection, rewards, and acts of kindness. Joy motivates ongoing engagement with people and activities that provide happiness and fulfillment. It helps reinforce bonding and acts of goodwill towards others.


Anticipation is the emotion felt in eager expectation of something positive that is going to happen in the future. It helps motivate preparation and planning towards goal accomplishment. Anticipation of enjoyable events like vacations, births, and graduations can bring excitement and happiness into our lives. Too much anticipation over negative events can also create anxiety.

Functions of the Major Emotions

Why is it useful to identify these 8 major emotions? Recognizing these basic emotions serves a few key functions:

  • Provides a framework for understanding the breadth of human emotions.
  • Allows for systematic study of emotion and its processes.
  • Highlights major adaptive purposes and functions emotions serve.
  • Standardizes language used to describe and discuss emotions.

Having an established set of major emotions creates a shared vocabulary for discussing emotion across disciplines like psychology, neuroscience, and even artificial intelligence. It also facilitates research into understanding how different emotions impact cognition, behavior, and physiology both in normal and disordered ways.

Framework for Mental Life

Having a core set of major emotions provides an analytic framework for thinking about how emotions color mental life. We can examine how various situations and events provoke different emotional reactions and how those emotions interface with thought and behavior. For example, the experience of riding a rollercoaster can elicit joy, excitement, fear, and surprise at different points. Labeling the shifting emotions provides insight into affective experience.

Scientific Study of Emotion

The major emotions allow scientists to systematically study emotion and compare findings across studies. Researchers can measure reactions like facial expressions, brain activation, or physiology in response to anger, fear, happiness, etc. Having standardized categories of emotion facilitates meta-analyses and reviews of accumulated findings.

Highlighting Emotional Functions

Categorizing the major emotions draws attention to why emotions exist and how they help us adapt and survive. For example, fear helps respond to threats, sadness provokes reflection after loss, and joy rewards social bonding. This functional perspective reveals insights into how emotional reactions serve self-regulation and wellbeing when not too extreme.

Shared Vocabulary

Having agreed upon labels for the major emotions allows for more effective communication about emotional experience across disciplines and between individuals. We can more easily convey our affective experiences using this shared vocabulary. When emotions are categorized into anger, fear, joy, etc., it creates understanding between people.

Origins and Universal Recognition

Research suggests that the major emotions have origins in evolution and universal recognition across cultures. The ability to recognize and experience core emotions appears to be innate in humans as an adaptive mechanism.

Evolutionary Origins

Current thinking is that the major emotions evolved because they supported optimal functioning and survival in ancient environments. Emotional reactions helped drive adaptive behavior in response to significant events and threats in the environment. For example, fear likely promoted hiding from predators and anger facilitated defending resources.

Universal Facial Expressions

Studies have found that the major emotions are associated with distinct, universally recognized facial expressions. Ekman and Friesen (1971) famously showed that people could accurately identify facial expressions displaying anger, fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, and surprise across cultures. This suggests these emotions have innate, biological roots.

Cross-Cultural Recognition

Additional studies have confirmed that people consistently recognize descriptions and symbolic representations of the major emotions across diverse cultures. While culture may shape how emotions are experienced and expressed, the basic recognition exists worldwide. This hints at a innate biological basis.

The Major Emotions and Psychology

The major emotions framework is an important foundation for the field of psychology. Emotions impact a wide range of psychological phenomena including motivation, cognition, behavior, mood, and personality.


Emotions drive our motivations and goal-directed behaviors. For example, fear motivates avoidance, anger provokes confrontation, joy drives ongoing engagement, and disgust promotes expulsion.


Emotional state heavily influences cognition and information processing. For instance, anxiety impairs concentration and performance, mood impacts memory, and depression affects thoughts negatively.


Emotions elicit characteristic behavioral reactions associated with each feeling. Anger produces aggression, fear leads to escape, joy facilitates approach and play, and sadness results in withdrawal and rumination.


Moods are subtly different from emotions in that they are lower intensity but more enduring affective states. Things like irritability reflect angry mood, nervousness a fearful mood, and cheerfulness a happy mood.


Emotion is closely tied to personality psychology. Traits like irritability reflect increased tendency towards anger, anxiety relates to fearfulness, and melancholy to sadness. Emotional reactivity shapes personality.

Measuring and Mapping Emotions

Psychologists have developed tools to systematically measure and map emotional experiences onto the eight major emotions.

Self-Report Measures

Psychometric scales allow individuals to rate their subjective experience of the major emotions. For example, participants rank how much anger, fear, happiness, etc. they feel in response to stimuli.

Computer Modeling

Computational modeling methods map word usage patterns onto emotional states. Natural language processing can extract emotional content from things like social media posts.

Facial Recognition

Computer vision and facial recognition technology can identify facial muscle movements associated with different emotions. This enables passive emotion detection.

Brain Mapping

Neuroimaging and EEG recording during emotional episodes can identify distinct brain activation patterns for anger, joy, fear, etc. Advanced methods decode emotions from brain signals.


Emotions produce discrete bodily reactions involving the nervous system, hormones, and metabolism. Measuring biological markers permits objective quantification of emotional responses.

Challenges and Limitations

While the major emotions framework is very useful, it is an imperfect model. There are challenges and limitations to representing the breadth of human emotion in just 8 categories.

Fuzzy Boundaries

The major emotions have fuzzy boundaries and often overlap. Mixed emotions are common. Where does frustration end and anger begin? Can sadness mingle with joy?

Underlying Dimensions

Some theories argue emotions are better captured by underlying dimensions like valence (positive/negative) and arousal (high/low) rather than distinct categories.


Emotional experiences depend heavily on contextual factors. Anger in one setting may signal injustice while in another it signals threat.

Cultural Variation

While the major emotions are recognized cross-culturally, cultural factors still shape emotional language and norms around expression. The framework may not capture all culture-specific emotions.

Individual Differences

People vary in how prone they are to different emotions. Some individuals experience anger far more readily than others due to variation in temperament and personality.

Developmental Changes

Emotional responses evolve over the lifespan. A child’s fear, joy, and disgust differ from an adult’s in how they are experienced and expressed.

Theories About Additional Primary Emotions

Some theorists argue certain additional emotions may also qualify as primary emotions alongside the main eight. These include:


Interest involves feelings of curiosity and fascination with something new. It helps drive exploration and learning.


Contempt encompasses feelings of scorn towards others deemed inferior. It helps enforce social hierarchies.


Guilt involves remorse over wrongdoing. It discouragesfuture unethical behavior that violates values.


Shame is a painful feeling arising from perceived failure to meet standards. It can help improve one’s shortcomings.


Envy stems from resentment over lacking another’s superior attributes or possessions. It can motivate self-improvement.

However, there is less scientific consensus about these “secondary emotions” compared to the main eight. There are fewer studies mapping their universal signals and functions.


Identifying the 8 major emotions – anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, trust, joy, and anticipation – provides a powerful framework for studying the nature of human emotion. This set of basic emotions has evolved to help us survive and function adaptively. While not covering the full spectrum, these 8 emotions do reflect distinct affective states underpinned by universal biology, recognizable expressions, and shared vocabulary. The major emotions model continues to provide a valuable foundation for research on emotions and how they shape psychology and behavior.