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The Times-Delphic

The Student News Site of Drake University

The Times-Delphic

The Student News Site of Drake University

The Times-Delphic

Professors disagree about new study on human emotions

Story by Katie Ericson

Emotions are running high with Valentine’s Day this last Friday. No doubt some are upset over lackluster dates, others ecstatic over a great night. Either way, we are running a little crazy with our emotions. But recently a study has been published that throws all this in doubt.

For over 40 years, Paul Ekman has been the leading expert on emotions. He studied preliterate cultures, physiological responses and facial expressions to come to this conclusion: humans have six different natural emotions.

Humans can feel happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry and sad. Though for years this theory has been held as correct, it is now being debated due to a new study.

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Published in Current Biology, scientists from the University of Glasgow have evidence to suggest that humans only have four emotions. The list still contains the six emotions, but combines afraid with surprised and angry with disgusted.

The scientists examined humans’ range of emotions by having participants classify facial expressions shown on a computer. They were given the six traditional options and chose from the list to match them to the faces.

Initially participants mixed up anger with disgust and fear with surprise. However, as the experiment went on, they started being able to tell the difference.

Rather than consider this a sign that the two emotions are indeed different, scientists believe that the different expressions are not biological traits, but evolutionary developments relating to our social conventions.

This study goes against the standard, and some scholars do not agree with it. Some of Drake’s professors have heard about the theory and voiced their opinions. Psychology professor Steven Faux is unsure of the theory’s validity.

“Human behavior, like emotion, does not often present itself to us scientists in nice neat structural packets.  It is easy to categorize somatosensation:  pressure, vibration, temperature, and pain.  But, it is not so easy to categorize emotions,” he said.

Specifically Faux brought up romantic love. It is an emotion many feel, but where would it lie on the list? Perhaps it could be considered happy, but the difference between the love of a partner and the excitement of a child are very different. Yet these theories group them all in one category.

Sociology professor Joseph Schneider agreed with Faux. “I think the list approach isn’t too productive since it is simply choosing words to describe feeling and experience and that always is an open proposition.”

Professor Schneider explained that these lists tend to be interesting, but there are too many factors involved with emotional experiences for a simple set of words to fully capture. “It is a naming game, which can be interesting but should be seen as that.”

Some professors do not see any merit in the theory. Sociology professor Nancy Berns is teaching Sociology of Every Day Life. Part of this course is about studying emotions. She was clear in her opinion of the study. “This is not a good theory and does you a disservice.”

So the theory is clearly still under debate. Maybe we are too complex for a list. Maybe the Glasgow scientists are onto something.

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