2001-06-20: The Nature of Emotions

The Nature of Emotions (American Scientist, July-August 2001)

by Robert Plutchik (1927-2006)

Plutchik’s article is intriguing, but frustrating. He gives little rationale for what amounts to a superficial model. Still, the little he says is more than I’ve found elsewhere. Perhaps his more extended works would be more satisfying.

He opens with:

Almost everyone agrees that the study of emotions is one of the most confused (and still open) chapters in the history of psychology. By one estimate, more than 90 definitions of “emotion” were proposed over the course of the 20th century. If there is little consensus on the meaning of the term, it is no wonder that there is much disagreement among contemporary theoreticians concerning the best way to conceptualize emotion and interpret its role in life.

In everyday human existence we conceive of an emotion – anger, despair, joy, grief – as a feeling, an inner state. The internal experience of emotion is highly personal and often confusing, particularly because several emotions may be experienced at the same time. Imagine, then, how difficult the objective study of emotion must be. Most of us often censor our own thoughts and feelings, and we have learned to be cautious about accepting other people’s comments about their feelings. The empirical study of a psychological phenomenon so complex and so elaborately cloaked cannot help but present a special challenge.

After 12  more paragraphs of thin background, explaining his preference for an approach based on evolutionary principles, he finally provides this attempt at definition:

The place to start might be with the definition problem. An emotion is not simply a feeling state. Emotion is a complex chain of loosely connected events that begins with a stimulus and includes feelings, psychological changes, impulses to action and specific, goal-directed behavior. That is to say, feelings do not happen in isolation. They are responses to significant situations in an individual’s life, and often they motivate actions. This definition of emotions allows the concept to be generalized to lower animals without difficulty. …

… I propose that in general, emotions are activated in an individual when issues of survival are raised in fact or by implication. Such situations include threats, attacks, poisonous substances or the sighting of a potential mate. The effect of the emotional state is to create an interaction between the individual and the event or stimulus that precipitated the emotion. The interaction usually takes the form of an attempt to reduce the disequilibrium and reestablish a state of comparative rest.

Plutchik notes that only a few classes of adaptive behavior are known: eating, the flight-or-fight response, sex, caregiving, and investigation. None of the six figures accompanying the article is mentioned in the text. One (figure 4) shows the chain of events that he evidently includes in his definition:

stimulus event —>

inferred cognition —> [ 2 parallel ‘events’ ]

feeling state | physiological arousal —>

impulses to action —>

overt behavior (displays) —>


He provides a few (partial) examples:

stimulus event cognition feeling state overt behavior effect
threat “danger” fear escape safety
obstacle “enemy” anger attack destroy obstacle
member of one’s group “friend” acceptance groom mutual support
unpalatable object “poison” disgust vomit eject poison
new territory “examine” expectation map knowledge of territory

He then goes on, without much motivation, to describe his “circumplex model”, which maps emotions to a cone-like space. The polar dimension corresponds to four pairs of emotional axes, the vertical axis to intensity. Color-coding apparently adds nothing to the model.

The axes are ecstasy-grief, admiration-loathing, terror-rage, amazement-vigilance. On the less intense levels, these are joy-sadness, trust-disgust, fear-anger, surprise-vigilance; serenity-pensiveness, acceptance-boredom, apprehension-annoyance, distraction-interest.

Between the axes are combination emotions. Various degrees of intensity of ecstasy and admiration make love; admiration and terror make submission; terror and amazement make awe; amazement and grief make disapproval; grief and loathing make remorse; loathing and rage make contempt; rage and vigilance make aggressiveness; vigilance and ecstasy make optimism. This is not exactly a theory, but an interesting approach to making a large emotional vocabulary from a smaller number of basic emotions and combining principles.

He goes on to make a connection between emotions and personality traits: the first is fleeting and the latter a long-term tendency of the same constituents.


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