Are Emotions Discrete?

Are Emotions Discrete?

Are emotions discrete??

Check out this answer from Consensus:

The body of research reviewed here provides substantial evidence in favor of discrete emotions. Studies have shown that emotions can be differentiated by their effects on cognition, behavior, and physiology, their neural correlates, and their influence on judgment and decision-making. While there is still debate and ongoing research, the current evidence suggests that emotions are indeed discrete entities with distinct characteristics.


The debate over whether emotions are discrete entities has been a long-standing one within the field of psychology and neuroscience. Discrete emotion theory posits that there are a limited number of core emotions, each with unique attributes and neural substrates. This article examines the evidence from recent research to address the question of whether emotions are indeed discrete.

Discrete Emotions and Their Impact

A meta-analysis aimed at understanding how discrete emotions elicit changes across cognition, judgment, experience, behavior, and physiology found moderate differences among discrete emotions, particularly among negative ones. The study also observed correlated changes in behavior, experience, and physiology, suggesting that emotions organize responses across these systems.

Appraisals and Discrete Emotions

Research on the appraisal of emotion-eliciting events supports the theory of discrete emotions by linking specific appraisals to particular emotions. This study provided empirical backing for the idea that certain situational and motivational states, along with perceptions of probability, power, and legitimacy, can elicit distinct emotions.

Neural Correlates of Basic Emotions

Neuroimaging studies have sought to identify the neural correlates of basic emotions. A voxel-based meta-analysis found consistent and discriminable neural correlates for each basic emotion examined, such as fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and happiness. These findings support the notion that discrete basic emotions have unique physiological and neural profiles.

Discrete Emotions in Dynamic Contexts

Critics of discrete emotion theory often point to the variability and context-sensitivity of emotions. However, some researchers argue that discrete emotions can be viewed as self-organizing patterns that account for this variability, thereby supporting the discrete nature of emotions even in dynamic contexts.

Influence on Judgment and Decision-Making

Discrete emotions have been shown to have moderate to large effects on judgment and decision-making outcomes. This meta-analytic review highlights the importance of considering discrete emotions, as emotions with the same valence can impact cognitive outcomes differently.

Measuring Discrete Emotions

The Discrete Emotions Questionnaire (DEQ) was developed to measure eight distinct state emotions, providing a tool for researchers to assess subjectively experienced emotions beyond broad dimensions of affect.

Goals Differentiating Emotions

Research has demonstrated that discrete emotions can be differentiated by their distinctive goals and action tendencies, as well as by their characteristic thoughts and feelings. This supports the idea that emotions are discrete, each with unique phenomenology and behavioral patterns.

The Debate on Discrete Emotions

While some propose natural kind accounts of discrete emotions, others critique these views. The Conceptual Act Model, for example, addresses misconceptions about the discrete emotion approach and suggests that emotions are not as fixed as traditionally thought.

Discrete vs. Dimensional Models in Music

A study comparing discrete and dimensional models of emotion in music found that both models have high correspondence along the dimensions of valence and arousal. However, the discrete model was less effective in characterizing emotionally ambiguous examples.

Communication Research and Discrete Emotions

In communication research, the discrete emotion perspective is argued to be more useful due to its precision in predicting communication-based phenomena. This approach emphasizes the unique emotion states generated by unique appraisal patterns.


Are emotions discrete?

Ole André Solbakken has answered Near Certain

An expert from University of Oslo in Psychology

Recent evidence appear to demonstrate the discreteness of emotions in terms of complex neural activation patterns in the brain, discrete phenomenology, discrete adaptive functions, discrete expressive patterns, and discrete patterns of associations with external validity indicators.


Are emotions discrete?

Aina Puce has answered Unlikely

An expert from Indiana University Bloomington in Neuroscience

We tend to think of single emotions, but in reality there is no reason to assume that these would have to be discrete. Think of the emotion of ‘surprise’. There can be ‘happy’ surprises and ones that are not so pleasant, so emotions can be complex blends in response to the complex interactions that we experience in real life. The only reason, in my opinion, that would lead people to come to this conclusion is that most lab studies test single emotions at a given time – giving us a somewhat unrealistic picture on how we might interact in real life…


Are emotions discrete?

Gavan P McNally has answered Unlikely

An expert from UNSW Sydney in Psychology, Neuroscience

Great question. The theory argues that there are a finite number of core emotions, although different versions of the theory argue for different numbers of emotions. These fixed emotions are defined typically through unique facial expressions or through unique brain signatures which are believed to be universal. The evidence is mixed. The first line of evidence is that we each show and can recognise facial expressions for many emotions (happy, sad, afraid) and these can be recognised across different cultures. However, the existence of some core emotions does not have to mean that emotions are discrete. Our emotional life is richer and more complex still. The second line of evidence is that some research shows unique brain signatures of specific emotions. Yet, although there are parts of the brain strongly implicated in specific emotions (eg, the typical example is the amygdala and fear), we now know that these brain regions are not as ‘specialised’ for one emotion over another as was previously thought (eg, the amygdala does a lot more than fear). Yes there are parts of the brain that appear to be specialised for generating our emotions and detecting emotions in others, but the evidence for discrete brain modules for specific emotions is lacking. So, “unlikely” is a reasonable answer.


Are emotions discrete?

Julie Fitness has answered Likely

An expert from Macquarie University in Psychology

The Wikipedia entry is very poorly written and you are right not to trust it. The word ‘discrete’ implies a set of boxes containing different emotions and this doesn’t reflect the richness, inter-relatedness and multifactorial nature of emotional experience. However, there is good evidence both in humans and other primates (and mammals) for emotion systems that are potentially functional and have enhanced our reproductive success over hundreds of thousands of years – in particular, fear, rage, attachment love, joy, sadness. These emotion systems are associated with perceptions and interpretations of the world associated with threat, challenge, need to keep others close and invested, etc. These biological systems are profoundly shaped by culture and learning. There are debates about other emotions such as guilt and shame, and the extent to which they may also be ‘discrete’ or biologically ‘basic’. I recommend reading Dacher Keltner’s work for his expertise in this field.


Are emotions discrete?

Jonathan D Morrow has answered Uncertain

An expert from University of Michigan in Neuroscience, Addiction, Psychiatry, Behavioural Science

There is no scientific consensus on exactly what an “emotion” is, let alone whether emotions are discrete, categorical, dimensional, etc. We have a long way to go before we can provide a definitive answer to this question.


Are emotions discrete?

Isabel Fraga has answered Unlikely

An expert from University of Santiago de Compostela in Psychology

The theory of dicrete emotions is one of the perspectives that we psychologists consider when trying to explain the effects of emotionality on mind and behavior. There is a broad consensus about the fact that there are at least a few number of basic emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. These seem to be universal. However, there is still another relevant perspective that fairly contributes to a comprehensive understanding of the emotion issue, without excluding the Discrete Emotion Theory. That is the dimensional perspective, which poses that emotional stimuli (be either pictures/images, sounds or words) can be situated along three dimensions: pleasantness or valence (stimuli can be positive, negative or neutral), arousal (related to the intensity of the stimuli and how this affects body and cognitive reactions; in general, negative and positive stimuli tend to be more arousing than neutral ones), and dominance (the word death can me evoke a feeling of less control than cancer). The boomerang shape that emerges in the so-called affective space when different kind of stimuli are located along the valence and arousal continuum is well described in many scientific papers (e.g., Bradley & Lang., 1999; Redondo, Fraga et al., 2007; Fraga et al., 2018).


Are emotions discrete?

Kristen A Lindquist has answered Unlikely

An expert from University of North Carolina in Psychology, Neuroscience

It depends on how you ask the question. To at least some humans, the answer is subjectively yes. Some individuals experience anger, disgust, sadness, guilt, shame, surprise and fear as very discrete and distinctive experiences. We can see this in their reports of emotion across time. It’s rare that such individuals report feeling different emotions in the same context. That is, they rarely say that they feel anger, disgust and sadness all at the same time. In contrast, some individuals do not tend to experience these emotions as distinct at all. For them the answer to “are emotions discrete?” might be subjectively no. These individuals almost always report feeling different emotions in the same context. So anytime anything negative happens, they report feeling anger, disgust, sadness, guilt, etc. What is being communicated by these individuals is that they just feel bad, and don’t really differentiate much amongst their emotions.

Now you might conclude from these findings that some individuals are just in tune with the firings of their brains and bodies and others are not. That is, a person who reports feeling angry (but not disgusted or sad) is aware that an anger circuit in their brain has fired, and that their body is expressing physiological changes consistent with anger. On the other hand, someone who reports feeling anger, sadness, disgust, guilt, etc. might be unaware that their anger circuit has fired. So the question is whether emotions are objectively discrete in the brain and body, separate from people’s subjective experiences and reports of them. Despite commonsense notions and lots of theorizing that emotions are objectively discrete as brain and physiological states, the data do not strongly support this conclusion. There is no single brain region, or sets of brain regions that ‘code’ for a discrete emotion such as anger across studies. Similarly, there is no physiological pattern (measured as heart rate, cardiac output, blood pressure, skin conductance, etc.) that ‘codes’ for a discrete emotion such as anger across studies. Certain behaviors (e.g., aggression) do not covary with certain emotions (e.g., anger) in a one-to-one way across studies either. And there are not facial expressions that people make exclusively in anger but not disgust, fear, or sadness. Even animals, who might have relatively less variable emotional lives than humans, do not appear to have single brain regions that when stimulated produce the same exact emotional behavior each time. This is not to say that the brain, body, and behavior are inert in emotions. The point is just that it is far from clear that there is patterning specific enough to say “this is the anger pattern. This person is experiencing anger right now!”

What is the case is that the emotion being felt by someone interacts with the context. The brain and body look completely different when you’re experiencing fear in a physical context (e.g., you’re afraid of falling off a ledge) and a social context (e.g., you’re in a big meeting presenting your work in front of superiors). In fact, the only thing that might be similar in those two contexts is your subjective experience of fear. This is not a bug, but a feature of how your brain creates emotions. Emotions are your brain and body’s way of dealing with the world around you, and so it makes sense that they would be fluid and intimately tied to the context around you.


Are emotions discrete?

Pilleriin Sikka has answered Uncertain

An expert from University of Turku in Psychology, Neuroscience

There is no simple and straightforward answer to the question. There has been, and continues to be, a heated debate as to whether emotions can be better understood as discrete categories or underlying dimensions. According to the discrete emotion theories, there is a limited number of distinct emotions – such as anger or fear – that are universal(i.e., shared across species and cultures) and psychologically and (neuro)biologically different from each other. This means that anger not only feels subjectively different from fear but also has a distinct neural basis. According to dimensional theories, however, emotions arise from combinations of dimensions – such as emotional valence or emotional arousal – that have overlapping neurobiological substrates. This means that both anger and fear arise as a combination of negative valence and high arousal. Modern constructivist theories, which build on dimensional models, posit that we experience “core affect” – whether something feels pleasurable or displeasurable, arousing or non-arousing – which a person then interprets and labels as a specific emotion, such as fear or anger (depending on the situation, etc.). 

Despite a growing amount of research on the (neuro)biological correlates of emotions, the debate is far from being settled.  It has been difficult to map discrete emotions onto specific brain regions (despite the oft-reported relationship between the amygdala and fear). Researchers endorsing dimensional and constructivist theories argue that this can be taken as evidence against the existence of discrete emotions. Others have argued that the reason for not having found the brain substrates for discrete emotions is due to our methodological inadequacies: discrete emotions may not have one-to-one mappings, but rather be represented by more complex distributed networks. Time (and continued research) will tell which theorists are right.


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