Is Anger a Basic Emotion?
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Is Anger A Basic Emotion?
Before one can explore whether or not anger is a basic emotion one must decide on what exactly a basic emotion is, or if it even exists at all. Carroll Ellis Izard defines emotion as “a complex phenomenon having neural, motor-expressive and experiential components.” Emotion is a complicated feeling based on biological factors that serves as a driving force in living beings. Most contemporary emotion theorists believe that emotion is split into two groups; complex emotions and basic (also referred to as primary and fundamental) emotions, whilst there are some theorists who question whether there is even such a thing as a basic emotion at all. Mandler (1975) suggests that “we construct emotions from our own life experience” and that there is nothing universal about emotions at all (Carroll Ellis Izard, 1991). There is no set basis for what constitutes a basic emotion, with disagreements between contemporary emotion theorists as to what exactly a basic emotion is, with some theorists proposing as few as 2 basic emotions (Mowrer 1960) all the way through to as many as 18 (Frijda 1986) including large differences as to what these basic emotions are (Ortony and Turner 1990). A large group of theorists point to universal emotions, traits such as facial movements or expressions that reveal emotions which are present worldwide across different cultures and even species, along with the theory that emotion is derived through an evolutionary-biological process (Plutchik, psychoevolutionary theory of basic emotion). A very large proportion of the emotion theorists do include anger in their lists of basic emotions, there are however some who do not. This essay aims to look at what exactly constitutes a basic emotion, and look at the theories of theorists that do include anger as a basic emotion, as well as explore the reasoning for why the others do not include anger on their lists.

As pointed out previously, there are different theories on what a basic emotion is, the most commonly accepted theories are that of a biological evolutionary based nature. Evolutionary psychologists believe that basic emotions are evolved psychological responses for dealing with situations, they themselves are also split into two different groups, as J.Prinz (2004) coined them; “modest”, those with lists made up of a small number (approximately 8 or less) of basic emotions, and “immodest”, those with lists containing a large amount (approximately 9 or more) of basic emotions. P. Ekman (1969) proposed that there are six basic emotions; happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, anger, and disgust, most evolutionary psychologists generally agree upon Ekmans list, or slight variations thereof. The main idea behind evolutionary psychologists work is that emotions are adaptations developed to help us cope with situations we find ourselves in during our lifetime, helping us adapt in order to survive. All of the basic 6 emotions proposed by Ekman can be linked to potentially life threatening situations, and it can therefore be argued that basic emotions came about due to natural selection.

The main body of evidence proposed by evolutionary psychologists to back up the theory of basic emotions existing due to evolution is that the basic emotions can be seen universally, that is to say that they can be found pan culturally, even in environments in stark contrast to one another. In 1969 Ekman found that an isolated tribe in New Gineau (The Fore) exhibited very similar facial expressions displaying emotions associated with a given situation as those found in the western world despite being thousands of miles apart. The members of The Fores tribe expressed facial reactions when faced with an insult that were extremely similar to an angry reaction of participants in a similar situation from the western world, showing that anger is universal as an emotion, despite large differences both in culture and environment. The main criticism of this however is that whilst The Fore may show expressions similar to other cultures in given situations, there is no way to see if they match up similarly in other ways, such as conceptually and behaviourally (J.Prinz, 2004). Plutchik proposed that all emotions were derived from evolution and, similarly to Ekman, suggested that that there are a small amount of basic emotions, in this case eight, from which all other emotions are derived from. Plutchik argues that these 8 basic emotions apply to all species despite different possible forms of expression, for example certain animals may show anger by snarling or showing of the teeth, quite a different reaction to that of man.

Anger is considered a basic emotion by almost all of the evolutionary theorists due to observations of its presence in unrelated groups of people, and even in completely different species. However there are a few evolutionary psychologists who do not include anger in their list of basic emotions, most notable of these are Mowrer (1960) who suggested that there were only as many as 2 basic emotions, pain and pleasure. He puts forth the theory that all emotions are derived somewhat from pain or pleasure, and that all other emotional states are cognitive based and are “learnt” in order to deal with or avoud the two basic emotions. The idea in this theory is that anger is an emotion derived from pain, as a response to help us cope. Similarly to Mowrer J.Prinz (2004), while subscribing to the belief that basic emotions do exist, suggests that the basic emotions proposed by Ekman, Plutchik, and other pschoevolutionary based psychologists may not in fact be truly basic, but rather further and more complexed developments of emotions built up by knowledge gained from our social surroundings. He goes on to suggest that these sets of “basic emotions” could be made up of even more basic emotions or innate reactions. Prinz further theorises that anger may be made up of “something like goal frustration and aggression”. This puts forward the idea that anger is not a basic emotion itself and instead is an interpretation we ourselves make based on these rudimentary feelings.

An alternative view that supports the evolutionary theory of basic emotions is that of a biological

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Basic Emotion And Anger A Basic Emotion. (April 3, 2021). Retrieved from