We’ve had this article (or variants of it) brought to our attention a lot in the last couple of weeks. It’s about some new research by academic Rachael Jack which calls into question Paul Ekman’s idea that there are only “six basic emotions”. According to Jack’s work, there are actually four.

This has got a lot of press. People are really interested in the idea that there are common emotions that work across cultures – it’s a reason our FaceTrace® methodology, which measures emotions and uses Ekman’s model, has been such a success. 3 million people have used FaceTrace 5 million times in 75 countries, so we know it works – but what if Ekman was wrong?

We took a look at Jack’s paper – you can find it here, it’s a complex piece of work but worth looking at, and the findings are interesting.

So how many basic emotions are there? It depends on what you mean by basic. Jack is using basic to mean “irreducible”. There are, she says, four different sets of facial movements which are absolutely distinct from one another. Two of these expressions – anger/disgust and surprise/fear – then resolve over the course of a second or so into their component parts: four slightly more complex Ekman emotions. The others – sadness and happiness – are as Ekman describes. It’s a kind of evolutionary perspective – taking the earliest emotions to appear on the face as the earliest to develop. At no point is she saying emotions like surprise and fear aren’t distinct – just they share a common ancestor, one that is still written on our faces.

It’s a fascinating idea, but it has little to do with the other meaning of basic – the common emotions we all recognise and share today, rather than the ones we shared millions of years ago. This is what Ekman’s work was based in – identifying cross-cultural, universal emotions. Whether or not anger and disgust share a common emotional ancestor, or take fractionally longer to resolve on the face, isn’t strictly relevant to that. (Ekman himself expanded the set of basic emotions to include Contempt, after all.)

The question for marketers and researchers is – which idea of “basic” is more useful? The one which tells us how emotions evolved in our deep ancestry, or the one which describes how they’re used around the world today?

This – we hope! – is a no-brainer. Try it yourself – think about surprise, and fear: they simply feel different. The universal set of emotions expressed in 2014 is just a lot more useful than the universal set of emotions found in 1,000,000 BC. From a scientific point of view, knowing about the ancient emotions is fascinating. From a marketing perspective, Jack’s results are a bit of a dead end. If you want to understand the emotions humans feel today, the Ekman emotions are still your best bet.

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