What's basic about basic emotions?

Andrew Ortony*, Terence J. Turner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1163 Scopus citations


A widespread assumption in theories of emotion is that there exists a small set of basic emotions. From a biological perspective, this idea is manifested in the belief that there might be neurophysiological and anatomical substrates corresponding to the basic emotions. From a psychological perspective, basic emotions are often held to be the primitive building blocks of other, nonbasic emotions. The content of such claims is examined, and the results suggest that there is no coherent nontrivial notion of basic emotions as the elementary psychological primitives in terms of which other emotions can be explained. Thus, the view that there exist basic emotions out of which all other emotions are built, and in terms of which they can be explained, is questioned, raising the possibility that this position is an article of faith rather than an empirically or theoretically defensible basis for the conduct of emotion research. This suggests that perhaps the notion of basic emotions will not lead to significant progress in the field. An alternative approach to explaining the phenomena that appear to motivate the postulation of basic emotions is presented.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)315-331
Number of pages17
JournalPsychological Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1990

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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