The Evolution of Emotion

Inspector Insight has written recently on the role of evolution and emotions in consumer behaviour.  Paul Ekman’s work on facial expressions is particularly useful for understanding customer reactions, but we all know that human emotions are much richer than the seven (7) which he identified as universal.  Many other scientists have developed models of human emotions, going back as far as Darwin (and ultimately to Aristotle).  The most useful I have found so far is the work of Robert Plutchik.

Although some of his conclusions are not universally accepted, the richness of the emotional vocabulary and his interpretation of the emotions in terms of evolution are particularly useful in brainstorming and innovation.  His work starts with a number of fundamental postulates including:

  • The concept of emotion is applicable to all evolutionary levels and all animals as well as humans
  • Emotions have an evolutionary history and have evolved different forms of expression in different species
  • Emotions play an adaptive role in helping organisms deal with survival issues posed by the environment
  • Despite different forms in different species there are common elements or patterns
  • There are a small number of basic emotions
  • All other emotions are combinations or mixtures of these primary emotions
  • Primary emotions also have polar opposites
  • Each emotion can exist in varying degrees of intensity or levels of arousal

A model of emotions

Plutchik’s wheel of emotions shows the basic emotions, their different levels of intensity and their opposites.  Some of these relate to Ekman’s seven basic emotions, but not all of them have such measurable expression in the faces of humans. As an example, joy has different levels of intensity, from serenity (and cheerfulness) through to ecstasy (and elation), with it’s opposite being sadness (from dejection to grief).

Each of the basis emotions addresses a specific survival issue.  Joy is a reaction to encourage us to retain or repeat in order to gain resource (remember that acquisition is a fundamental drive), and reflects the gaining of a valued object (whereas sadness reflects the loss of a valued object).  Likewise, trust reflects mutual support with a member of our group, whereas disgust is the rejection of an unpalatable object.  Fear is a reaction to a perceived threat or danger (leading us to escape to safety), whereas anger is a reaction to an obstacle leading us to attack.  Finally, surprise is a reaction to an unexpected event leading us to stop and give time to orient, whereas anticipation is an encouragement to examine new territory.

Emotional combinations

The richest part of Plutchik’s model is the combination of these primary emotions into more nuanced emotions, which are a fantastic stimulus for mapping emotional territory for brands, and linking touchpoints to specific emotional states or desired outcomes.  A full list of the different combinations is given below.

The 48 Emotions of Plutchik

Emotion Level Composition Opposite Intense Form Mild Form
Anger Basic N/A Fear Rage Annoyance
Anticipation Basic N/A Surprise Vigilance Interest
Disgust Basic N/A Trust Loathing Boredom
Fear Basic N/A Anger Terror Apprehension
Joy Basic N/A Sadness Ecstasy Serenity
Sadness Basic N/A Joy Grief Pensiveness
Surprise Basic N/A Anticipation Amazement Distraction
Trust Basic N/A Disgust Admiration Acceptance
Aggressiveness Primary Blend Anger + Anticipation Alarm
Optimism Primary Blend Anticipation + Joy Disappointment
Contempt Primary Blend Disgust + Anger Submission
Alarm Primary Blend Fear + Surprise Aggressiveness
Love Primary Blend Joy + Trust Remorse
Remorse Primary Blend Sadness + Disgust Love
Disappointment Primary Blend Surprise + Sadness Optimism
Submission Primary Blend Trust + Fear Contempt
Pride 2ndary Blend Anger + Joy Despair
Hope 2ndary Blend Anticipation + Trust Unbelief
Cynicism 2ndary Blend Disgust + Anticipation Curiosity
Despair 2ndary Blend Fear + Sadness Pride
Guilt 2ndary Blend Joy + Fear Envy
Envy 2ndary Blend Sadness + Anger Guilt
Unbelief 2ndary Blend Surprise + Disgust Hope
Curiosity 2ndary Blend Trust + Surprise Cynicism
Dominance Tertiary Blend Anger + Trust Shame
Anxiety Tertiary Blend Anticipation + Fear Outrage
Morbidness Tertiary Blend Disgust + Joy Sentimentality
Shame Tertiary Blend Fear + Disgust Dominance
Outrage Tertiary Blend Surprise + Anger Anxiety
Sentimentality Tertiary Blend Trust + Sadness Morbidness
Delight Tertiary Blend Joy + Surprise Pessimism
Pessimism Tertiary Blend Sadness + Anticipation Delight
Rest N/A Emotional Zero N/A

I have found these to be a fantastic resource for brainstorming.  If you need some emotional stimulus, look no further than Robert Plutchik!


Emotions and Life: Perspectives from Psychology, Biology and Evolution by Robert Plutchik (2002)

Handbook of Emotions (3rd edition) by Lewis, Haviland-Jones & Barrett (2010)

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