Origins: James, Cannon, and Skinner

Created: July 2022
Modified: 11/19/22

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.

Due to Skinner's 'black-box' approach, an overly tenacious off-branch of cognitive therapy, led to 'behavioral therapy,' which ignored how people feel, and just thought of all behavior in terms of a Pavlovian stimulus/response model. It's empirically effective in immediate reduction of phobias and addictions. Otherwise, after enabling therapists to quickly fill in a tick chart proving 'mission accomplished,' patients generally get worse over longer periods of time, however much their behavior initially appears better. Over the decades, revolving-door patients have rather convinced even the most hardened behaviorists that cognition is also important, and that it is actually counterproductive to reduce the significance of emotions to such a dismissive status.

The Outstanding: 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 hypothetical 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 following 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

Plutchik's statistical ranking of hundreds of emotions into his categories, and their 3D representation, appears to me whimsical, but Plutchik claims it is the result of extensive empirical observations of relative strengths that are far beyond my ability to analyze properly, so I could be too judgmental in Plutchik's case.

Downfall into Autism: 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).

Eckman's popularity has systematically destroyed most of cognitive therapy with its autism. There is no connection to cause, just an observation of its manifestation. Nonetheless, it remains true that more intelligent autistics have found his facial expression charts helpful in understanding other people's otherwise inexplicable emotions. As I pass into the later phases of retirement, I witness events such as the 6th January 2021 assault on the Capitol and find myself rather more empathetic with autistic bewilderment, but my physical capacities no longer permit me to put such new insights into practice.

The Turgid: 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.

A Cognitive response to incognitive 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!

A Solution: regression to Existentialism

If one is looking for sensible therapeutic solutions in cognitive therapy now, one really has to take a step back from the new age mania and return to the explorations of experience by existentialism. The field's roots are complex, deriving from the phenomenology of Husserl, which itself was a product of Hegelian dialectic.

In Hegel's method, one can start anywhere in the search for understanding by proposing a thesis, considering its antithesis, and figuring out the synthesis of the two. The synthesis is itself another thesis, resulting in another antithesis, and another synthesis, and so on. If one continues in this dialectical method long enough, one eventually completes an exhaustive analysis of all possible knowledge.

Husserl built on Hegel's method to define experience. Existentialism then emerged as in-depth point analyses of various experiential dilemmas in Husserl's dialectic, most famously, angst ('worry'). Existential writers covered a wide gamut of experiences, including the theological (Kierkegaard), the atheist (Sartre), the despondent (Kafka), the enraged (Dostoevsky), the academic (Heidegger), the social (Heese), and the perplexed (Camus).

For myself, being a philosopher by nature, I find the most meaning in Knut Hamsun's 'Hunger,' whose unemployed protagonist admires Kant. That is something I have had much time to consider in my own life between various jobs. Hamsun's protagonist does get a job, in the last paragraph, and I would have to say, I eventually got a job in exactly the same way. Every time. Hamsun's book won a Nobel peace prize. Having stated my predilection for Hamsun, I am obliged to add that I tried recommending it to other people when unemployed, so from my own experience, I know it is not a general therapeutic balm for unemployment. But for metaphysicians, it is most definitely effective! fails.

Social evolution: effective emotion (or not?)

The next frontier for the psychology of emotions is not only to consider their cause, but also how their effect shapes future events, and therefore, their utility. Or perhaps not. That will be addressed in my next article, Love: Is love only the result of social evolution, or something more?".

Wishing you all a beautiful day :)