Scientists claim humans have only four emotions

Face value: Our expressions help to communicate how we feel.

New research released this month shows that all human emotions can be reduced to just four basic facial expressions. Is our species less complex than we like to think?

We often think of ourselves as complex creatures with a wide range of sophisticated emotions, and not, as Hermione Granger once described Ron Weasley, as having ‘the emotional range of a teaspoon.’

But a new study published by the University of Glasgow suggests that our emotional range might be closer to the teaspoon end of the scale after all. The research challenges the widely-held scientific assumption that we have six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust. Instead, the researchers say, there are just four: happiness, sadness, fear, and anger. Surprise and disgust turn out to be derived from fear and anger or at least share so many of their characteristics that they don’t deserve a separate category.

Participants in the experiment watched a computer screen on which some of the face’s 42 muscles contracted and distorted. At first, they were unable to distinguish between anger and disgust, which share the same wrinkled nose, or fear and surprise, which both have the same eyebrow movements and share the same ‘signal’ of wide open eyes.

As the expressions developed, participants began to distinguish between the emotions, suggesting that the differences between them developed over time, and for social rather than the most basic survival reasons.

Researchers hope that a better knowledge of facial movements could help those with autism to interpret social cues, make computers able to interact better with people and even help to predict consumer behaviour.

With faces offering such important messages about our reactions and intentions, controversy has spilled over from science into politics. Last year there was widespread debate in the UK about whether women should be able to wear the niqab. There is also concern that we are becoming less empathetic and less able to decode each other’s feelings due to our increasing reliance on technology.

Facing facts

This research is so simplistic that it is an insult to human complexity, say some. Scientists are too obsessed with the idea that all our behaviour can be reduced to basic urges and reactions that result from evolutionary pressures. The human race has progressed, and our emotional capabilities are now influenced by modern society and culture. The facial expressions of our prehistoric ancestors now have so many variants that this discovery is simply not relevant to who we are today.

Rubbish, cry others. Mankind is not as sophisticated as we like to think, and changes in our biological make-up essentially remain unaltered. The behaviours we all share prove this, such as the flight or fight instinct, or our urge to nurture babies. In the end, we are still the species we were when we were living in caves.

You Decide

  1. Do scientists know more about emotions than artists, writers, or anyone else?
  2. Does it help to link our behaviour back to the instincts that helped us evolve and survive as a species, or does it oversimplify how we and our minds work?


  1. In groups, make a list of the other emotions which are subsets of the basic four described here.
  2. Write a short essay in response to the following statement: ‘Empathy is overrated.’

Some People Say...

“Science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.’Isaac Asimov”

What do you think?

Q & A

Can people really tell how I’m feeling just by looking at my face?
People have different abilities when it comes to tuning in to another’s emotions. Scientists say personality traits as well as emotions can be revealed by studying faces. And there are other intriguing findings: digitally altering a face to make it more male or female affects how people interpret expressions, and the frequency of your smile indicates whether you are an introvert or extrovert.
My inner life feels way more complex than four emotions.
Well, you’ll either learn to love science and its attempts to explain the heart and soul, or resort to literature, art and long moody walks. There has long been a debate between science and the arts over which makes better sense of the human experience. It’s probably both!

Word Watch

Hermione Granger
The fictional friend in J K Rowling’s popular Harry Potter series of children’s novels. Ron Weasley is the other friend in the trio.
The researchers intend to develop their study by looking at facial expressions of different cultural groups. They believe East Asian populations will interpret some of the six classic emotions differently.
The researchers found that the wide-open eyes associated with fear and surprise are a response to ‘fast-approaching’ danger (think of a sabre-toothed tiger), and that we widen our eyes to get more visual information about a situation. The wrinkled nose that comes with anger and disgust is a response to a ‘stationary danger’ (poisonous food for example).
A lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people.
Consumer behaviour
In 2012, a study was carried out by an American company which tracked viewers’ facial expressions as they watched a series of adverts. It turned out that facial expressions could predict whether sales of the advertised product would increase or decrease.
The Liberal Democrat MP Jeremy Browne called for a debate last year on whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear the full-face veil in some public places, after Birmingham Metropolitan College tried to implement a ban.
Introvert or extrovert
Extroverts tend to be outgoing and talkative, whereas introverts are more reserved and solitary. The concepts were developed by the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung.


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