There is a long history of debate about the amount of primary emotions people have. E.g. Paul Ekman in a study of 1972 suggests that there are 6 primary emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. And his authority made this amount of basic emotions a standard for some time. However, other scientists offered other amounts of basic emotions. E.g. Robert Plutchik in his concept of the wheel of emotions offers to consider 8 emotions to be the basic ones, adding trust and anticipation to the Ekman’s list, plus substituting happiness with joy.
As the scientists advance their methods and the science of emotions becomes less speculative, there is a tendency to shrink the amount of emotions that serve as the basis for the rest. Reviews and statistical processing of hundreds of fMRI and PET neuroimaging studies nowadays name five basic emotions: anger, fear, sadness, happiness and disgust, with this amount gradually becoming the new standard.
However, it is early to say that there is a consensus and there will be no surprises. E.g. this research suggests that there are only four basic emotions, with disgust being a derivative. And anyone who is attentive enough will notice that the reaction for something disgusting is similar to a combination of anger and fear.
But downsizing to the four basic emotions is not necessarily something really new, as for thousands of years in multiple schools of Hindu philosophy (e.g. Samkhya, Kaśmir Śaivism, etc.) there was a tendency to name four basic emotions and tie them to elements: sadness with earth, fear with water, anger with fire, joy with air, leaving aether/space/sky element for the combination of multiple emotions.
For this document structuring emotions in 3D I used the the structure and the names of the emotions that Robert Plutchik did in his wheel of emotions. However, I explained the emotions using 4 instead of the 8 basic ones he originally used. His original structure easily accommodates such an explanation. Four basic emotions are more in line with contemporary thoughts on the topic, as well as the “traditional wisdom”. Plus, downsizing the set to 4 building blocks makes it easier to remember the document, since all the resulting emotions are easily reconstructed from the four basic ones adding several levels of intensity.
I also need to note that in no way I pretend to cover the topic completely. There are many more combinations possible, e.g. combining emotions that are diametral in Plutchik’s and our structure, e.g. fear and anger, combining more than two emotions at once, combining emotions of different level of activation, e.g. joy of high intensity with moderate anger and slight fear, etc.
Nevertheless, we hope that the document will be of interest to you to explore how just a handful of basic emotions can cover a substantial amount of emotional expressions. Feel free to copy the document, tweak it the way you want, embed in your web-sites and share with others. The original images used in this document are available online under the Creative Commons license.