Theories of Emotion

This months information blog was written by Catia Caeiro, a PhD student at the University of Lincoln-take a look at her member bio for more details on Catia's current and previous work.

Paul Ekman:


Who is he? A Clinical Psychologist, has researched emotions and non-verbal behaviour in humans since the 1950s, including gestures, body movements and facial expressions. More information about him in his own website:


Some of Paul Ekman’s ideas summarised:

·         Some of his most famous studies looked at cross-cultural studies of facial expressions and concluded that some facial expressions of emotions in humans are universal, i.e., they are innate and are thus perceived similarly across different human populations. This also means that basic facial expressions are not socially learned but that they are hard-wired. These ideas support, for example, Darwin's initial ideas about emotional expression in humans. Gestures on the other hand, are culturally specific and therefore need to be learned.


·         He also was one of the investigators that created FACS - the Facial Action Coding System, a tool to code facial expressions in a standardized, anatomical and unbiased way. More information about this system here:


·         FACS is still the golden standard for measuring facial expressions in humans and has been used in different areas of research and even outside research (e.g. to animate facial movements of characters in animation films) for over 40 years.


·         Ekman's departure point to discuss emotions is based on the facial expressions.


·         Another important aspect of Ekman' approach to emotion is that he views emotions as having an adaptive value and that they evolved to perform specific fitness related functions (e.g. fear prompts an individual to ran away from potential threats, increasing its chances of survival).


·         Ekman defines emotions as discrete phenomena, having a rapid onset, a short duration, automatic appraisal, spontaneous occurrence, and coherence among responses. Emotions are elicited due to antecedent events, produce a signal and have a defined physiology.


·         The basic emotions, according to Ekman, are anger, fear, sadness, enjoyment, disgust and surprise. Contempt is also sometimes included in this list. He calls these emotions basic because they are related to survival or regulation of social relationships, all crucial to mobilise the individual to deal quickly with situations presented in its environment. For example, fear will prompt the organism to run to escape a predator, enjoyment will increase the action or situation that lead to that emotion, etc.


·         Each basic emotion has not one, but a group of corresponding facial expressions that share certain characteristics. For example, one of Ekman's studies found more than 60 anger expressions. Another study describes 28 different types of smiles (where the vast majority is unrelated to happiness). Each of these anger faces or faces with a smile presented a different muscular configuration, but with certain common aspects. For example, every anger face presented a lowered brow and lips pressed together tightly.


·         Ekman states that emotional expressions provide information to conspecifics (as well as heterospecifics), about antecedent events, associated responses and probable next behaviours. Not only this, but also they should have accompanying physiological changes preparing the organism to respond differently in different emotional states.


·         Facial expressions present a consistent link with other markers of emotion, namely experience of emotion (self-reported in humans), autonomic activation, brain regions activation and verbal discourse.


Some thoughts following on from Ekman’s work:

·         If emotions are products of evolution, this means that they are not uniquely human. Ekman's framework can thus be extended and adapted to study other species facial expressions, specifically the FACS tools. This has been done for several primate and domestic species, including for example dogs and cats (DogFACS and CatFACS).


·         When looking at animal emotions, Ekman's ideas provided an important basis of comparison with humans, as well as tools to look at facial expressions meanings in species that might be using facial expressions in a different way from what humans perceive them to.


·         Some emotions do not present a universal facial expression in humans, e.g. grief, envy, positive anticipation, love (these emotions are also called secondary emotions). Nevertheless it is a very useful and one of the few frameworks that relies on anatomy instead of perception and allows a standardized and scientific robust way of measuring facial behaviour.


·         If looking at humans’ facial expressions, display rules are an important factor to be accounted for influencing facial expressions, i.e., in some social situations facial expressions can be masked or suppressed. Deception frequently occurs in human interactions. In suppression cases, micro-expressions will appear. However, in animals, it has not yet been shown conclusively if masking or suppression of facial expressions is present.


Ekman, P. (1992). An argument for basic emotions. Cognition & emotion, 6(3-4), 169-200.

Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1982). Felt, false, and miserable smiles. Journal of nonverbal behavior, 6(4), 238-252.

Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1978). Manual for the facial action coding system. Consulting Psychologists Press.

Keltner, D., & Anderson, C. (1993). Facial expression and emotion. In American Psychologist.


Antonio Damasio:


Who is he? A Neuroscientist that studies neural systems related to emotion, decision-making, memory, language and consciousness.


Some of Antonio Damasio’s ideas summarised:

·         He makes a conceptual definition between emotions and feelings.


·         Emotion is defined as a collection of responses triggered from parts of the brain to the body, and from parts of the brain to other parts of the brain, using both neural and humoral routes. Results in behaviours and experiences of emotional states (that are the feelings). There is a genetic, set program that is always the same for each emotion and it is common across species. It is automated and non-conscious.

·         An emotion (e.g. happiness, sadness) is a patterned collection of chemical and neural responses that is produced by the brain when it detects the presence of an emotionally competent stimulus.

·         Emotions allow organisms to cope successfully with objects and situations that are potentially dangerous or advantageous.

·         The end result of the collection of such responses is an emotional state, defined by changes within the body proper, e.g., viscera, internal milieu, and within certain sectors of the brain, e.g., somatosensory cortices; neurotransmitter nuclei in brain stem.


·         Feeling: the complex mental state that results from the emotional state. The feeling happens after the emotion arises. An emotion can be happening without the feeling. The process of perceiving what is going on in the organism during the process of an emotion. It is conscious, requires reflexion on the emotion and is subjective.

·         Feelings are the mental representations of the physiological changes that characterise emotions.

·         Feeling of an emotion is different from having an emotion.


·         If emotions provide an immediate response to certain challenges and opportunities faced by an organism, the feeling of those emotions provides it with a mental alert. Feelings amplify the impact of a given situation, enhance learning, and increase the probability that comparable situations can be anticipated.


·         Animals do not think about their emotions, but humans do. Humans use feelings for future planning, but animals do not (even though they also have feelings).


·         Damasio proposed that emotions are part of homeostatic mechanisms and are related to reward/punishment systems. Emotion and the experience of emotion, are the highest-order direct expressions of bioregulation in complex organisms.


·         Emotion is the most complex expression of homeostatic regulatory systems. The results of the emotions serve the purpose of survival even in nonminded organisms.


·         The emotions operate along the dimensions of approach or aversion, of appetition or withdrawal. The emotions protect the subject organism by avoiding predators or scaring them away, or by leading the organism to food and sex. As such, the emotions often operate as a basic mechanism for making decisions without the labours of reason, that is, without resorting to deliberated considerations of facts, options, outcomes, and rules of logic.


·         Emotion is critical for survival in the complex organisms equipped to process it, since disorders of emotion can kill, in animals or humans. Emotions are devices designed by evolution as devices that avoid the need to think about a problem and make sure the individual acts correctly upon a situation.


·         It is emotion that allows the individual to make decisions and helps the individual learn how to act in different situations, i.e. emotion is involved in cognitively more demanding processes, instead of purely reflexive ones.


·         Connects emotions to the concept of consciousness and the self and connects emotion to high-level cognition.


·         Believes other vertebrate species have consciousness like humans (share the brain stem structure), except that they are not as rich as humans because they do not possess a cerebral cortex like humans do.



Damasio, A. R. (1998). Emotion in the perspective of an integrated nervous system. Brain research reviews, 26(2), 83-86.

Damasio, A. (2001). Fundamental feelings. Nature, 413(6858), 781-781.