What are the main theories of emotions?

People have been theorising about emotions for many hundreds of years.   They have been grouped into categories, sub-categories and numerous lists.  Here are some of the main theories that can still be useful today.

Aristotle – Ancient Greek Philosopher and student of Plato

He identified 14 main emotions:

Anger, mildness, love, enmity (hatred), fear, confidence, shame, shamelessness, benevolence, pity, indignation, envy, emulations and contempt

ANGER: “An impulse to revenge that shall be evident, and caused by an obvious, unjustified slight with respect to the individual or his friends.  Slights have three species: contempt, spite and insolence”  Aristotle


Anger, love and fear still feature in more recent theories as basic emotions.

Darwin in The expression of emotions (1872)

Darwin identified emotions to fall into the following groupings

  • Suffering and weeping
  • Low spirits, anxiety, grief, dejection, despair
  • Joy, high spirits, love, tender feelings, devotion
  • Reflection, meditation, ill-temper, sulkiness, determination
  • Hatred and anger
  • Disdain, contempt, disgust, guilt, pride, helplessness, patience, affirmation and negation
  • Surprise, astonishment, fear, horror
  • Self-attention, shame, shyness, modesty, blushing.

James-Lange (1800s)

James Lang (psychologist) and Carl Lange (physiologist) proposed that emotions occur as a result of physiological reactions to events.  This was challenged in Cannon-Bard (1920s) who suggested that our physiological reactions (such as crying and trembling) are caused by our emotions.

Robert Plutchik (1980)

Theorised 8 basic emotions:  Fear, Anger, Sadness, Joy, Disgust, Trust, Anticipation and Surprise.  He created a wheel of emotions:

Wheel of Emotions

Plutchik’s wheel of emotions

Ortony and Turner (1990)

Collated a wide range research to identify the basic emotions:


Theorist Basic Emotions
Plutchik Acceptance, anger, anticipation, disgust, joy, fear, sadness, surprise
Arnold Anger, aversion, courage, dejection, desire, despair, fear, hate, hope, love, sadness
Ekman, Friesen, and Ellsworth Anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise
Frijda Desire, happiness, interest, surprise, wonder, sorrow
Gray Rage and terror, anxiety, joy
Izard Anger, contempt, disgust, distress, fear, guilt, interest, joy, shame, surprise
James Fear, grief, love, rage
McDougall Anger, disgust, elation, fear, subjection, tender-emotion, wonder
Mowrer Pain, pleasure
Oatley and Johnson-Laird Anger, disgust, anxiety, happiness, sadness
Panksepp Expectancy, fear, rage, panic
Tomkins Anger, interest, contempt, disgust, distress, fear, joy, shame, surprise
Watson Fear, love, rage
Weiner and Graham Happiness, sadness



Shaver et al (2001)

Identified the basic emotions to be Love, Joy, Surprise, Anger, Sadness and Fear.  He also looked at secondary emotions and third level emotions


Primary emotion Secondary emotion Tertiary emotions
Love Affection Adoration, affection, love, fondness, liking, attraction, caring, tenderness, compassion, sentimentality
Lust Arousal, desire, lust, passion, infatuation
Longing Longing
Joy Cheerfulness Amusement, bliss, cheerfulness, gaiety, glee, jolliness, joviality, joy, delight, enjoyment, gladness, happiness, jubilation, elation, satisfaction, ecstasy, euphoria
Zest Enthusiasm, zeal, zest, excitement, thrill, exhilaration
Contentment Contentment, pleasure
Pride Pride, triumph
Optimism Eagerness, hope, optimism
Enthrallment Enthrallment, rapture
Relief Relief
Surprise Surprise Amazement, surprise, astonishment
Anger Irritation Aggravation, irritation, agitation, annoyance, grouchiness, grumpiness
Exasperation Exasperation, frustration
Rage Anger, rage, outrage, fury, wrath, hostility, ferocity, bitterness, hate, loathing, scorn, spite, vengefulness, dislike, resentment
Disgust Disgust, revulsion, contempt
Envy Envy, jealousy
Torment Torment
Sadness Suffering Agony, suffering, hurt, anguish
Sadness Depression, despair, hopelessness, gloom, glumness, sadness, unhappiness, grief, sorrow, woe, misery, melancholy
Disappointment Dismay, disappointment, displeasure
Shame Guilt, shame, regret, remorse
Neglect Alienation, isolation, neglect, loneliness, rejection, homesickness, defeat, dejection, insecurity, embarrassment, humiliation, insult
Sympathy Pity, sympathy
Fear Horror Alarm, shock, fear, fright, horror, terror, panic, hysteria, mortification
Nervousness Anxiety, nervousness, tenseness, uneasiness, apprehension, worry, distress, dread


Jack et all (2014)

Looked at emotions by studying facial movement of muscles and proposed that actually there are only four biologically based emotions of anger, fear, happiness and sadness and that all the other emotions have evolved from these over many hundreds of years.


Harrn (2017)

Working on her theory !!!!

In the meantime proposes there are many many many emotions, feelings and moods that all humans experience living in the 21st century. Her aim is to break down the meanings of emotions, feelings and moods to the subjective level of interpretation in order to help people manage themselves and their lives in the most positive way.