Drawn faces showing emotionsEmotion is a subjective state that is a reaction to either internal or external stimuli. Emotions last longer than brief feelings—such as momentary seconds of panic—and strongly affect mood. Personality can affect a person’s predisposition to feel certain emotions. For example, a person with an anxious or neurotic personality is more likely to experience emotions of fear.

Indicators of Emotion

While emotions reflect the subjective state of the person experiencing them, they also can affect that person’s behavior and physiology. Emotional reactions can alter body chemistry and functioning. The emotion of fear, for example, may elevate the blood pressure and result in the secretion of adrenaline. Conversely, bodily states can affect emotion. For example, problems with secretion and absorption of dopamine and serotonin can result in sadness or anxiety.

Emotion also strongly affects behavior. A fearful person is more likely to hide or avoid contact, while a happy person may seek contact with others or be highly conversational. Emotions may also play a role in moral development. Anger in response to violence against another helps a person establish the belief that violence is wrong.

Universality of Emotion

All people experience emotion, and numerous studies have indicated that animals also experience emotions. Some emotions are more common in some cultures, and some emotions may be named in some cultures and unnamed in others. In Western cultures, people tend to aim to maximize positive emotions such as happiness, while in many Eastern cultures, people attempt to strike a middle ground between positive and negative emotions.

Scientists generally recognize six basic emotions that people feel across diverse cultures:

  1. Happiness
  2. Fear
  3. Disgust
  4. Surprise
  5. Sadness
  6. Anger

Cross-cultural research also indicates that most people can read these emotions on another person’s face, but may have trouble with other emotions. For example, an American would readily recognize a smile in a person from another culture, but might not recognize the face for shame. Some psychologists have argued that complex emotions such as shame and guilt are combinations of the six basic emotions.


  1. American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
  2. Prinz, J. J. (2007). The emotional construction of morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Last Updated: 08-15-2016

  • Leave a Comment
  • Sally High

    Sally High

    September 20th, 2015 at 3:23 AM

    I agree with the above article yet tend to also strongly believe that fear is the number one core emotion driving all others. Fear of losing something or fear of not getting what I want. These drive negative emotions is sadness, anxiety, depression, etc

  • Phil


    October 7th, 2017 at 2:23 PM

    Hi Sally ,
    Agree totally that the emotion or feeling of fear is, for the majority of people, the number one driver of their decisions, actions and behaviours. I’d also add in ‘hope’ as possibly the other major driver in most instances where fear isn’t involved. Together both fear and hope cause people to act, react or change both in the short term (including immediate actions) and over the long term.

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