Emotions


Theories of Emotion: Ascent and Downfall

Theories of Emotion: Ascent and Downfall
Theories of Emotion: Ascent and Downfall
On this Page:
Origins: James, Cannon, and Skinner
Plutchik's Octet
Ekman's Facial Expressions
Emotion Wheels
(Click the images for a lightbox slideshow)

Origins: James, Cannon, and Skinner

Created: July 2022
Modified: 07/21/22

The world has changed much since the 'Father of American psychology,' William James, defined the four fundamental emotions in his 1902 book "Varieties of Religious Experience" as fear, grief, love, and rage. Having sat psychology at Oxford University some four decades ago, here is a review of developments in 'theories of emotions,' how they are impacting those seeking psychotherapy now, and what we can all do about it.

Initially, James' primal emotion quartet was improved by attaching REASONS for the feelings, thus establishing the 'theory of emotions' as conventionally known today. Walter Cannon defined the fight/flight response ("anger", "fear"), and B.F.Skinner defined reward/punishment ("happiness", "sadness") within his ideas on operant conditioning. Up to the end of the last century, psychotherapists found that about as much as they needed for most patients, often referring to the emotion quartet as the 'lizard brain,' because they are the most 'primitive' ways we respond to states and events.

Plutchik's Octet

The Plutchik Octet
The Plutchik Octet

Amidst numerous nomenclature and variations, Plutchick made an outstanding contribution by proposing EIGHT basic emotion sets, with variations within each set based on stimuli strength, in his 1980s book "theories of emotion" (now refined in his 2001 paper as represented in 3D, shown here). Plutchik's psychoevolutionary theory has ten postulates:

  1. The concept of emotion is applicable to all animals at all evolutionary levels as well as to humans.
  2. Emotions have evolved various forms of expression in different species.
  3. Emotions served an adaptive role in helping organisms deal with key survival issues in their environments.
  4. There are certain prototype patterns across all species.
  5. There is a small number of basic, primary, or prototype emotions.
  6. All other emotions are mixed or derivative states; that is, they occur as combinations, mixtures, or compounds of the primary emotions.
  7. Primary emotions are hypothethical constructs or idealized states whose properties and characteristics can only be inferred from various kinds of evidence.
  8. Primary emotions can be conceptualized in terms of pairs of polar opposites.
  9. All emotions vary in their degree of similarity to one another.
  10. Each emotion can exist in varying degrees of intensity or levels of arousal.

The folllowing table shows basic stimulus/response actions in Plutchik's model:


stimuluscognitionfeelingbehavioreffect
threatenemyfearescapesafety
obstaclepossessangerattackdestroy
gain of valued objectpossessjoyretaingain
loss of valued objectabandonsadnesscryreattach
member of one's groupfriendacceptancegroomsupport
unpalatable objectpoisondisgustvomitreject
new territoryexamineexpectationmaplearn
unexpected eventinvestigatesurprisestoporientate

Ekman's Facial Expressions

It began to look like psychology was making real progress. But people have noticed a general decline in intellect over the past decade or two, generally attributed to computer automation and social media such as Twitter reducing the complexity of discourse. Psychology has not been immune to the decline.

Servo layout for robotic face
Servo layout for robotic face

For example, Paul Ekman now defines seven basic emotions, but no reason for them. He simply groups people's reactions to pictures of facial expressions, and Ekman lucked out on enabling facial expression recognition programs; animated 3D models of human heads that appear to have feelings; and inspiration of SF androids such as Data in Star Trek, for which the actor Brent Spiner based his expression range on Ekman's categories of emotions. Perhaps for the last achievement most of all, Ekman is now on the list of 100 most celebrated scientists of the last century.

When Ekman retired in 2004, he founded a massive pyramid marketing scheme for his ideas, so he is now considered far more important than Plutchik. Yet ironically, Ekman originally defined six primal emotions instead of seven. So now Ekman's own self-marketing of his current sevenfold division is far dwarfed by derivative work from his original sextet.


That means Ekman himself has demolished his own theory that was the basis of almost all current emotional recognition and simulation software, most especially, MIT's interactive social robots 'Eddie,' 'Kismet,' and 'Leonardo,' remarkable achievements. However they, like most existing social AI software, could only mirror emotions in general, as Ekman has no actual theory for why emotions exist (Kismet does have an interesting AI extension that makes it withdraw if overstimulated with pleasure).

Emotion Wheels

By changing his base category count from six to seven, Ekman has also himself undermined the now widely sensationalized 'emotion wheels' derived from his earlier sextet. Hence there are numerous supernaturally intuitive women on psychedelics who've produced ENORMOUS "emotion wheels" by contriving progressive subdivisions for each category (for example the Junta group, and Gloria Wilcox, shown attached--And you will find a giant splurge of stickers and cards of various permutations under 'emotion wheels' on Amazon).

Emotion wheel: Junto Institute
Emotion wheel: Junto Institute
Emotion wheel: Gloria Wilcox
Emotion wheel: Gloria Wilcox

Emotion-wheel designers will dispense both injunctions and psychedelic drugs, if you're grudgingly accepted as a patient, for $585 per session upwards. Hallucinations and placebos aside, however fun they are, all these wheels lack any reasoning for why the emotions should be so arranged, and certainly have nothing to do with experimentally verified stimulus-response models.

The different emotion-wheel models started multiplying at an alarming rate in recent years, each existing only in the imagination of some self-appointed guru who is earning money from their religosity of certainty, with $585+ due before the end of each 55-minute Zoom session, which is far more an appropriate honorarium than any drug dealer deserves. That's not to say some don't deserve even more for their insights, but U.S. consumers have demonstrated no discernment whatsoever in differentiating snake oil salespeople from genuine Hippocratic practitioners in the psychology arena.

New Emotion Models in Psychotherapy

Unfortunately, those endowed with less supernatural intuition are expected to follow the price leaders in a capitalist society, so even those who are withheld the ability to prescribe medications fall into line behind the hucksters, without necessarily considering the empirical validity of their claims in any depth; and as the followers are much less expensive, that's whom most seeking consultations prefer to hire.

So how can we protect ourselves? No worries, if we are unexpectedly presented with an emotion wheel as the panacea to life's existence, we only need to ask if its subcategory definitions could ever be distinguished from aberrant Pavlovian associations with Plutchik's stimulus/response model–And what do you know, suddenly supernatural forces cause Zoom to lock up inexplicably :o

At least we can all be glad, those supernatural forces are at least good for something!