We have tons of different types of emotions. Some of them are quite specific like enthusiasm, which is a really intense form of enjoyment or interest. While other emotions are quite broad, like happiness. There are six emotions known as the primary emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. Let's figure out why these six emotions are so special!
Can you tell which color balloon represents each primary emotion?
The Primary Emotions Are Universal
The six primary emotions are universal, which means that they are expressed and understood worldwide!
Across the world, the facial expessions that people use to represent these six emotions are quite similar. When someone feels happy, they often smile, squint their eyes, and raise their eyebrows. Whereas when someone is surprised, they often open their mouth, widen their eyes, and raise their eyebrows. Try pretending like you are feeling happy, sad, angry, scared, surprised, and disgusted. How did you face change to show the different emotions?
As you can tell, we often use our mouths, eyes, and eyebrows to share our emotions with others. We have a bunch of muscle in our face (especially around our eyes and mouth) that help us form these different facial expressions.
Not only does everyone make similar facial expressions for the six primary emotions, but people across the world are also very good at understanding these six facial expressions. For example, if someone were to show you a picture of a face with either a happy, sad, angry, scared, surprised, or disgusted expression and ask you what emotion they were feeling, you would often answer correctly. Did you try to guess the emotions of the balloons above? Here are the answers, see how many you guessed correctly!
Sometimes it's challenging to tell anger and disgust apart. It can also be hard to tell fear and surprise apart. Usually happiness and sadness are the easiest facial expressions to read.
It can also be harder to read an expression from a photograph or drawing. When we look at a picture we don't always have the information about why they are expressing an emotion. For example, if we saw a picture of someone crying we would think they are sad, but maybe something really exciting has happened and they are crying because they are so happy. We are often a lot better at reading facial expressions when we are in person because we understand the situation that created the emotion.
The Primary Emotions & Babies
Another thing that makes the primary emotions so special is that all of us can pretty much feel these emotions our whole lives. Even babies, who don't know how to speak yet, feel the primary emotions.
Can you guess which emotion newborn babies first feel? If you said anger or sadness, you would be right! When babies are first born they are crying and feeling distressed. Distress is sort of a combination of sadness and anger; babies feel distressed when they are hungry, sleepy, etc.
Newborn babies are also capable of feeling happy. We know that babies feel happiness right away because they can smile as soon as they are born. However, it takes about 3-4 months before babies can laugh.
Babies don't feel fear straight away, it takes about 6-12 months before babies can be scared. Usually babies develop their sense of fear around the same time that they start crawling and walking. Babies don't feel fear often, but they will learn to fear things if they get hurt. For example, if a baby accidentally bumped their head on a table, they may feel scared next time they try to walk near the table.
Disgust is a bit of a tricky emotion for babies. Technically, babies can be disgusted by things like yucky food straight away. But some psychologists argue that being grossed out by certain foods is actually "distaste". Those psychologists say that "disgust" doesn't develop until around five years old when children can imagine gross foods or smells and still feel disgusted. Imagination is a very important part of the disgust emotion.
The primary emotions are really special and exciting, but they aren't the only emotions we are capable of feeling. There are thousands of different types of emotions!
Emotions are sort of like colors. There are primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) that create new colors when mixed together (i.e. red and blue make purple). And even those six colours can have different types of colours (i.e. dark blue and light blue).
Emotions are the same! The primary emotions may mix together to form other types of emotions. For example, when we mix together happiness and surprise, we would feel something like delight. Also, the primary emotions can feel more or less intense. For example, happy may be really intense (ecstatic) or quite dull (content).
Since there are so many emotions, it can sometimes be hard to tell which emotion we are feeling. That is why it can sometimes be useful to think about which primary emotion we are feeling and break it down from there. For example, if we know we are feeling sort of sad, we can try to figure out if it's mixed with anything else (like fear or anger) or if it is a really intense versus a very dull feeling. This is a really helpful way to learn how to understand and cope with our emotions. The more we practice understanding our own emotions, the better we become at expressing and coping with our emotions!
Kassin, S., Fein, S., & Markus, H. R. (2016). Social Psychology (10th Ed.), published by Wadsworth.
Siegler, R., Eisenberg, N., DeLoache, J., Saffran, J., & Graham, S. (2014). How Children Develop (5th Canadian Edition). New York: Worth Publishers
Try these activities to go along with what you've learned: