How many emotions are there? Is our society building new, complex emotions?

When was the last time you felt something ambiguous? A feeling that you couldn’t name? Was it perhaps a mixture of two, three, or many other more familiar emotions? Are there basic emotions that everyone feels and understands? The evidence seems to suggest that there are at least four to six universal basic emotions, based on Paul Ekman’s analysis of facial expressions across cultures. These have a genetic basis, and are experienced by all humans. The great majority of emotions seem to be more complex amalgams of these basic emotions. Indeed, in 1980, the psychologist Robert Plutchik developed a fascinating ‘colour wheel’ of emotions to depict the various possible combinations and intensities of basic emotions and their resulting ‘complex emotions’.

However, many of the psychological studies into basic and complex emotions do not account for the inherently social way in which emotions are combined and experienced. Norbet Elias’ Civilizing Process, and Michel Foucault’s studies of discipline and punishment (compounded in the construction of Jermeny Bentham’s famous Panopticon as a vehicle for moral reform) are historical examples of how society engenders complex, socially constituted emotions such as shame and guilt to maintain social order and police the boundaries of class and status. Think about how the modern institutions of society – work, family, church, government, market, media, social networks – shape and assemble your emotions in ever more complex forms.

Reflect on your feelings right now. Are they basic or complex? Individual or social?

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