The Six Universal Emotions Theory

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated March 4, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, a book published by Charles Darwin in 1872, he theorized that the facial expressions we use to express emotions are the same in every human rather than varying due to different cultural influences and upbringings.

Dr. Paul Ekman furthered this theory while researching an indigenous tribe in Papua New Guinea. There, he discovered the tribe had the same emotions occur and the same reactions that other people would when presented with sad, happy, or terrifying situations. These facial expressions would soon become what is now known as the six universal emotions.

Today, a debate continues as to whether the theory and the evidence presented by these researchers prove that universal facial expressions of emotional reactions are universally recognized and expressed.

According to the teachings of Paul Ekman and Charles Darwin, here are the six universal emotions, or core emotions, that are believed to be the feelings and emotional behaviors that all humans have and express in response to various psychological triggers.

1. Joy or happiness

You may know what it is to feel happy, but how do we express happiness with our faces? According to research, the basic cues of joy include raising the corners of our mouths and tightening our eyelid muscles. Our facial expression may result in a large smile affecting our eyes. We may laugh when happy, as well. 

2. Sadness

When we experience something that emotionally hurts us, we may respond by feeling sadness. Sadness is often expressed by lowering the corners of the mouth into a frown, lowering the eyelids, and raising the inner corner of the eyebrows while the outer corners remain slanted downwards. Watery eyes or tears may also accompany sadness.

Prolonged or persistent sadness may indicate an underlying mental health condition or concern, such as depression. 

Interested in understanding more about emotions?

3. Anger

Anger is another universal emotion. Many psychologists believe it is a secondary one, meaning it may come after or hide primary emotions like sadness or fear. An anger response may manifest itself in tightened lips, bulging eyes, and lowered eyebrows that are concentrated toward the gap between the eyebrows.

4. Surprise

Surprise as an emotion may be more related to shock than a pleasant or joyful surprise in this context. Excitement is the emotion we typically experience after life-changing news. 

When someone is surprised, their eyes may widen, their eyebrows may arch up, and their jaw may drop slightly, making the mouth form a circular or ovular shape. 

5. Fear

When someone is afraid, their eyes may widen, and their eyebrows can lift. Fear in the mouth area may manifest as lips stretched horizontally across the face. Fear often accompanies physical symptoms such as sweating and heart palpitations. When fear is prolonged or intense, it may be due to an anxiety disorder or other mental health condition. 

6. Disgust

Disgust is an emotion we may experience when dealing with something offensive or unpleasant. For example, if you smell something that makes you want to vomit, your reaction may be disgust. 

How do we typically show disgust? Disgust may form on our face when we raise our upper lip, wrinkle the bridge of our nose, raise our cheeks, and slightly arch our eyebrows.

Contempt (still being debated)

In addition to the six basic emotions, many people consider contempt to be a universal emotion giving humans seven universal emotions instead of six. However, many still disagree with this notion and instead characterize contempt as a complex emotion consisting of disgust and anger maintained consistently over a long period. 

Contempt may appear on our faces when we raise one side of our lips and furrow our brow—the rest of the face may stay relatively neutral in this expression. However, the head is often said to be tilting back when expressing contempt towards someone or something.

Research that supports the argument for universal emotions


To further prove that emotions were innate, not learned, Ekman and other notable psychologists also researched the facial expressions of people who were born blind as well as newborn babies who could not express feelings in words or using language.

This research uncovered that newborns and congenitally blind people reacted to emotions similar to the rest of the world. Research on primates and their facial expressions has shown that humans and primates respond similarly, which indicates that these emotions are automatic appraisal influenced and may not be conscious expressions. These pieces of evidence may be the most compelling in the argument for universal emotions.

Some groups believe in universal emotions but present theories of their own. For example, some psychologists and researchers believe there may be far more universal emotions and emotional expressions than the original six presented by Ekman, including amusement, coyness, boredom, confusion, shame, pride, and sympathy.

The argument against universal emotions

Those who argue against the theory of universal emotions point out a few problems in Ekman’s research from Papua New Guinea. One error that they identify is that Ekman had given photographs to the study participants that they were supposed to match with emotions that had been explained to them. People against this theory say that this experiment was biased because it did not allow the participants to come to their own conclusions or express differences regarding emotions and facial expressions.

Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett and researcher Maria Gendron set out to gather more details and knowledge about universal emotions. They asked two groups of participants from the US and remote villages in Namibia to sort photos into emotional categories. However, unlike Ekman, they did not give participants a reference image for each “universal” emotion. 

Without a previous reference, they found much more variation among the groups. US participants tended to place the images into the expected emotional category. However, the study participants in Namibia didn’t show the same recognition of the six universal emotions and their facial identifiers. The study concluded that facial expressions are not universal but could be influenced by cultural environment, upbringing, and expectations.

As a result of this study, Barrett claims that emotions are not emotions until they can be explained to us in a way that makes sense to us. She describes emotions as a complex process of responses to stimuli that varies from person to person depending on how they feel and perceive their reality. She also states that emotions technically only have meaning that we have given to them, and complex processes are happening behind the scenes of these emotions.

Additional emotions recognized over time

As time passed, Ekman began to recognize more emotions that seemed to pop up across the faces of all humans. Some of these many emotions included embarrassment, guilt, and pride. So why did he opt not to have them on the list of universal emotions? Often, it was because these “bonus” emotions may be considered a complex blend of existing universal emotions rather than a universal emotion themselves.

Along with some of these complex emotions identified by Ekman, he also began to identify something known as micro-expressions. Micro-expressions, as described by the Paul Ekman Group, are “facial expressions that occur within 1/25th of a second”. 

These expressions may be involuntary reactions that we create without intent, even when someone is trying to conceal their true feelings. According to the Pau Ekman Group, these expressions also seem to be universal when it comes to human psychology.

Benefits of counseling for emotional regulation 

While traditional research seems to point to evidence of at least six universal emotions that transcend culture and upbringing, there may be much more to learn about human emotion. For example, emotions can be challenging to cope with at times and may affect mental health and influence behaviors. 

You may benefit from speaking with a professional if you struggle to identify or control your emotional processes. Many individuals opt into online therapy as an option to work through emotional well-being and to deal with life challenges, as studies show that most people feel most comfortable at home

Modern studies also indicate that 71% of users of online therapy have suggested that it is more effective and preferable to traditional in-person counseling. If you want to try online therapy, you might consider an online platform such as BetterHelp, which offers an extensive database of experts on various topics, including emotional management and gives you the ability to attend therapy at your convenience. 

Interested in understanding more about emotions?


Many psychologists agree that there are at least six universal emotions, although some may claim there are more. Others, like Lisa Feldman Barrett, may believe emotions are more complex and rooted in cultural and behavioral patterns than biology. 

Whatever you believe about emotions, learning to regulate your emotional state and practice healthy self-care can benefit your daily life. If you want professional advice and support, consider taking the first step to emotional healing by reaching out to a counselor.

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