In 1967, Paul Ekman began the scientific pursuit of universal emotions by studying a tribe in Papa New Guinea. The tribe members had never been exposed to the outside world. His studies revealed that there were six basic universal emotions – sadness, anger, disgust, surprise, fear and happiness. These basic categorizations of emotions have held true until now.

An exciting study that just emerged from Dacher Keltner’s lab at U.C. Berkeley has shown that there seem to be 27 distinct categories of emotion.This overturns a long-standing  belief within psychology that there are six categories.

The study looked at responses from over 800 participants to more than 2,000 short videos aimed at evoking a variety of emotions. Analysis indicated 27 distinct categories of emotions.

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Emotions are more nuanced and interconnected than we realized.


Perhaps, most interestingly, you can explore the interactive map the researchers developed complete with the videos shown to participants at the link below…

When you hover the cursor over a letter, the appropriate video will pop up, and you can see the variety of emotions people used to describe how  it made them feel in the upper right corner. Check it out. It’s fascinating!

On top of that, there doesn’t seem to be hard boundaries bewteen particular emotions. Rather there are “smooth gradients of emotion between, say, awe and peacefulness, horror and sadness and amusement and adoration,” says lead researcher Keltner.  It seems that emotions are not distinct but interconnected. “We wanted to shed light on the full palette of emotions that color our inner world,” lead author Alan Cowen stated.

Three different groups of participants viewed several videos, and, after watching each clip, reported on their emotions. The first group reported their emotional responses off the top of their head with no assistance or structure. The second group ranked each video by how intensely it evoked admiration, adoration, aesthetic appreciation, amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, awkwardness, boredom, calmness, confusion, contempt, craving, disappointment, disgust, empathic pain, entrancement, envy, excitement, fear, guilt, horror, interest, joy, nostalgia, pride, relief, romance, sadness, satisfaction, sexual desire, surprise, sympathy and triumph.

Researchers discovered that participants converged on similar emotional responses, with more than 50% of participants identifying the same category of emotion for each video.

The final group stated their emotional responses on a scale of 1 to 9 to a dozen videos based on scales such as positive versus negative, excitement versus calmness, and dominance versus submissiveness.

In summary, the results demonstrated that participants typically shared the similar emotional responses to each of the videos, providing a large quantity of data that allowed researchers to identify 27 distinct categories of emotion.

Journal Reference:

1Alan S. Cowen, Dacher Keltner. Self-report captures 27 distinct categories of emotion bridged by continuous gradients. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017; 201702247 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1702247114