Emotions vs Expressions

We know there are seven “basic” emotions, but aren’t there many more emotions?

In fact, there is significant difference between what emotions we experience and how our faces are able to express these emotions. While mountains of previous research have settled on the existence of seven basic emotional expressions, ongoing research seeks to quantify exactly how many emotions there really are

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, attempted to do just that. In a recent study, psychologists ran an extensive analysis with over 800 participants, attempting to provoke and record their range emotional expressions.

Each participant was exposed to a selection from more than 2000 short video clips, intended to trigger various emotions. These videos ranged from beautiful nature shots and romantic weddings to macabre images of human suffering and natural disasters.

The first group was shown 30 of these videos and was asked to simply write out whatever emotions they felt, garnering a vast range of self-reported descriptions. Then, a second group, again exposed to a selection of videos, was asked to identify their emotions from a predetermined list. This list ranged impressively from anger or anxiety to romance or triumph, but sought to give some common ground between individual reports.

Interesting, about half of the second group selected the same emotions after watching the same videos.

Finally, a third cohort was asked to rank their emotional experiences on a nine-point scale after viewing a series of 12 videos. While analyzing all three of these results through statistical models, the study authors found significant overlaps between reactions to a given video. When compiling all of these overlapped reactions, they were able to settle on a spectrum of 27 shared emotions.

However, the study authors cautioned that these different emotions were not entirely distinct. Senior author Dr. Dacher Keltner pointed out that “there are smooth gradients of emotion between, say, awe and peacefulness, horror and sadness, and amusement and adoration.”

Long-time readers of this blog will note the potential conflict between this expansive view of 27 emotions and the more limited view of seven universal basic emotions.

But, as Humintell’s Dr. David Matsumoto clarifies, this question is solved by distinguishing between experienced emotions and nonverbal expressions of these emotions. While we can feel a huge range of emotions, there are only so many facial expressions that humans universally use to express them.

Dr. Matsumoto’s distinction also explains another difference between emotions and expressions. The seven universal emotional expressions are distinct, separate categories. For example, the emotional combination of sadness and anger does not have a universal facial expression. On the other hand, emotions, as Dr. Keltner explained, are not so categorically distinct. Sadness and anger can overlap, making emotions more scalar and continuous than simply categorical.

To learn more about recognizing emotions and emotional expressions, check out Humintell’s training tool here!

Smelling Feelings?

If something smells awful, it’s because it’s disgusting, right? Maybe, but the truth is a little bit more complicated.

A recent study found that our immediate olfactory reactions to stimuli are heavily influenced by the emotional reactions of other people. This suggests that when we smell something bad, we may be picking up on people’s emotions just as much as the scent of the object. Such a conclusion would fit with previous studies which found a strong relationship between our senses and our emotions.

A team of researchers out of the Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany, examined whether exposure to happy and disgusted faces would affect participants’ reactions to various odors. Participants were shown images of either happy, disgusted, or neutral faces before being exposed to various scents.

Perhaps surprisingly, the participants reacted significantly differently depending on which expression they were exposed to. They rated scents more positively after seeing happy faces, while rating them more negatively after seeing disgusted ones. This held over the majority of scents, despite the odors varying drastically from caramel to human sweat. Only when exposed to the smell of feces did emotion fail to have an impact.

When combining these results with fMRI brain scans, the researchers were even able to identify the section of the brain responsible. They highlighted the role of the piriform cortex, in conditioning our response to a scent, even before we actually smell it.

These results may seem shocking. Don’t our senses simply tell us how the world is around us? Our very empirical skills seem challenged if our sense of smell has more to do with expectation than reality!

However, previous research into other senses has repeatedly found that emotions can influence our sensations, whereas sensations can similarly impact our emotions!

One 2011 study found that tired or overburdened participants actually perceived hills as steeper than those who were energetic or unencumbered. Similarly, happy participants considered their food as actually tasting better than sad ones, while fearful individuals ranked noises as louder and cliffs as higher. In each case, the emotions seemed to profoundly shape perceptions.

This relationship between emotions and sensations works the other direction too: many sensations can trigger certain emotions.

For example, our repeated exposures to certain scents can condition us to react in specific ways. This holds when ardent coffee drinkers immediately feel energetic and upbeat when exposed to the smell of coffee. This can happen even before a drop touches their lips.

After we repeatedly experience pleasure and energy from consuming coffee, our brains become accustomed to associating those feelings with the beverage and are then triggered by the smell, taste, or even sight of it! In a similar, though less uplifting fashion, the mere smell of fire can trigger a fear response in many people, even if they are perfectly safe.

For more information on the relationship between emotion and perception, check out our past blogs here and here!

Trying to Buy Happiness

Could happiness be a purchasable commodity like any other?

It has long been a cliché that we cannot simply buy happiness, but is this really true? In fact, several recent studies have begun to find striking correlations between wealth and happiness, but it isn’t that simple. For example, your purchased happiness seems to depend on what exactly you are spending money on.

A growing body of research is growing to support the idea that money does lead to happiness. For instance, a 2013 study by economists Dr. Betsey Stevenson and Dr. Justin Wolfers found that happiness is heavily correlated with per capita GDP, meaning that the wealthier a nation is, the happier people in it tend to be.

Similarly, Stevenson and Wolfers found that, within a given country, happiness rises alongside income. This study flies in the face of some conventional wisdom by denying any so-called “satiation point,” where happiness ceases to grow despite rising wealth.

The concept of a “satiation point” is evident in an earlier study from 2010. This study did find that happiness rise together, but only up to an annual salary of $75,000. After surpassing this point, authors Dr. Daniel Kahneman and Dr. Angus Deaton found that happiness levels no longer correlated with wealth.

While this picture remains muddled, new research suggests that looking at gross income does not give us a full story. Instead, it is important to examine specifically how wealth is used to foster happiness. A groundbreaking 2017 study sought to analyze the effect of differing spending habits on happiness.

The study authors recruited participants and asked them to spend money on material purchases, like clothing or wine, but the following weekend, urged them to purchase services that would give them more leisure time. This latter category included paying for a cleaning service or meal delivery, both of which would save the purchaser the time and effort need to clean or cook.

After each of these weekends, the researchers asked for participants to report their levels of happiness and found decidedly more positive emotions amongst those that purchased leisure time.

Similarly, the same authors surveyed approximately 6,000 people with incomes ranging from $30,000/year to some in the millions. They asked each respondent to report their level of happiness and to describe their purchasing habits. Reinforcing their previous results, they found that those who “purchased leisure time” were happier than those who spend money on material objects.

In emphasizing the conclusion’s significance, one study author, Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, said “if altering slightly how people are spending their money could [boost life satisfaction], it’s something we really want to understand and perhaps encourage people to do.”

These results confirm some previous research. In a previous blog, we reported how spending money on experiences, like vacations, boosted happiness more than material purchases. Similarly, other research has found that charitable giving provides more happiness that just spending that money on ourselves.

Clearly, how we spend money matters, and hopefully further research will continue to shed light on such an important question.

For more information on the psychology of money and happiness, check out or previous blogs here and here!

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