A Story of Emotion: Categorizing Emotion

How can we categorize emotions and why do we do it?

Posted May 15, 2019

"Physical actions and body states, like plants, exist in nature. But the status of these physical changes as instances of anger, sadness, or fear (or even as instances of some other psychological category like a cognition or perception) is created in the same way that a plant becomes a flower or a weed: with a human mind making meaning of physical events."  —Lisa Feldman Barrett

The way to categorise emotions has been debated ever since we started researching this area, with two dominant schools of thought: the categorical classification and the dimensional categorisation. The first approach relies on interpreting emotion in terms of specific words and categories; it is, in my opinion, based on the very human wish to label everything and being able to refer to something precisely and specifically. The terminology used is somewhat subjective, depending on the context, the culture, or even the person. The second approach takes a dimensional perspective: Emotion could be interpreted in terms of bipolar dimensions rather than discrete names and classes. A feeling can be more or less pleasant, or vary in arousal; by rating emotion in terms of degrees (pleasure, arousal), broad clusters can be created providing a general representation of different types of emotion (pleasant, low arousal; mid-pleasant, high arousal; unpleasant, high arousal).

I mentioned in the previous paragraph two dominant schools of thought. Dominant is not unique though; the third main stream relies on the interpretation of emotion as response to a type of situation or as part of an instrumental action. Here, happiness could actually be feeling delighted after the arrival of a friend or part of a greeting process. When you try to describe your current feeling, it is quite frequent to start describing similar situations in which you felt in a comparable state (“I feel like when…”). This approach seems more intuitive, quick, automatic, and requiring less effort than when looking for the precise words pinpointing accurately your emotional state. The limitation is that one situation might not trigger the same response in everybody, and as such this method might not be as generalisable as the previous methods mentioned. When I first read about the different ways to categorise emotion and the various schools of thought, my first thought was to wonder why would I had to choose one. Would it be greedy to want to use them all? Each method takes a different perspective, shedding light on different aspects of emotion that I think are essential to grasp the entire function of our feelings. I will try to integrate the different approaches in my own research, but in the meantime, let us consider the various categories of emotion researchers agree on.

Plutchik's wheel of emotions
Source: Wikipedia

How to group emotion?

Depending on their ontological origins, their purpose, or their objects (self vs other), emotions have been put in different categories. The first dichotomy used when talking about emotion is based on the origin of the feeling, whether it appears early in life or develop gradually during childhood, i.e. using the ontology of emotion: primary vs secondary emotions. So-called primary emotions are said to be biologically based, shared with other animals, pan-culturally expressed, and easily studied without verbal communication (emotional state inferred from facial expressions). Those emotions appear first in life, supposedly emerging between 1 to 9 months after birth. In this category, we find anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, and surprise. They seem to be the basic emotions that allow infants to express themselves and communicate their basic, vital, needs to their relatives. In contrast, secondary emotions are thought to be acquired later in life and to start developing gradually in children, from 18 month onward, making it more likely that they can be subject to cultural variations. They could result from the social context children are exposed to in their own culture. Secondary emotions are sub-divided in multiple groups where emotions are clustered on different levels: are they referring to the self or directed towards others? Are they social or moral? Relating to the past or the future?

And then, it was chaos…

If the first dichotomy is rather intuitive, it is harder from here to classify emotions. When it comes to secondary emotions, we do not have clear ontological nor biological arguments to help us create new categories.Secondary emotions are often perceived as deriving from primary emotions, being a mix between primary emotions arising at the same time; for example, you could feel angry and disgusted in a situation, resulting in textbook contempt; whether you can de facto recognise contempt will depend of the balance between anger and disgust felt at the time. You could report feeling angry because it is the main emotion you perceived and identified, disgust having a lower arousal. You might be able to recognised contempt if both anger and disgust are expressed at similar intensities. Secondary emotions are also different shades of a primary emotion; let’s look at anger. A situation can stimulate anger, but it can also go further and provokes rage or fury, or only provoke mellow annoyance. Rage and fury are defined as “intense anger”, their arousal is higher than anger, but annoyance is also a shade of anger, defined as “slight anger”, and is milder than rage (lower arousal); the root to both emotions remains the same.

A common comparison is to associate each primary emotion to a primary pigment colour (red, yellow, and blue); secondary emotions are thus a mix between two primary emotions, i.e. green results from associating blue and yellow. Based on the quantity of each of the primary pigment you put into the mix, the more intense the green colour.

Source: Pixabay

You could also decide to add water to a primary pigment, resulting in a less vivid colour, a fainter emotion harder to identify. Mixed feelings can be tricky to pinpoint; it requires a good knowledge of yourself, the ability to listen to your body, and being able to recognise the signs of different emotions. Imagine you are looking at a nice peacock blue painting; depending on your knowledge on colours, your sensibility to different pigments, the surrounding light, and your tastes, you will label it as peacock blue, petrol, turquoise, or even dark aqua. If all those shades of colours are quite close, they are different to the shrewd eye as the exact intensity of each pigment varies in each of those shades. The same happens with secondary emotions.

How to do it then?

Should we classify emotions in a similar fashion to colours, identifying the exact amount of each primary emotion entering the mix? The approach taken by philosophers and scientists is less dreadful; secondary emotions are classified based on their functions (i.e. social or moral emotions), their objects (i.e. self- vs other-oriented), and their valence (i.e. positive or negative). The system might look complex, as quite often an emotion will have multiple labels (i.e. pride is a positive moral self-conscious emotion), but it allows flexibility in the system and it is a more instinctive split.

When looking at secondary emotions, one category that fascinated the scientific community is moral emotions, with this first question popping to mind: What is morality and why do we have it?

To be continued...

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