Research Topic

Basic Emotions: Still Necessary After All These Years?

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This Research Topic will be an interdisciplinary collection of papers on the state of health of the “basic emotion theory” (BET). BET is the research program based on the view that basic emotions (the most elemental among discrete emotions) are phylogenetical inherited packages of short-term, coordinated and ...

This Research Topic will be an interdisciplinary collection of papers on the state of health of the “basic emotion theory” (BET). BET is the research program based on the view that basic emotions (the most elemental among discrete emotions) are phylogenetical inherited packages of short-term, coordinated and automated responses coordinated by causal mechanisms called “affect programs”.

In the Tomkins-Plutchick-Ekman tradition, inspired by Darwin, the most elemental among discrete emotions are fast and mandatory responses controlled by modular subsystems triggered by information coming from an extremely limited range of perceptual inputs, drawing on a limited database, and working independently of more conceptual processes. Basic emotions are moreover intimately related to survival-critical functions: in emergency conditions, facing environmental threats to survival, the modular features permit the affect program to work as a fail-safe system, which seizes behavior when, having little time, it is crucial for the agent immediately to generate adequate coping responses (e.g., fight or flight), even at the price of trusting ‘quick and dirty’ knowledge.

The view that affect programs postulated by BET were able to account for the entire range of folk emotion concepts started to creak in the late ’90, when it has been noticed that folk psychology also recognizes other types of emotion which are much more cognitively complex than basic emotions, and there are good reasons to hold that, contrary to what some researchers have claimed, such complex emotions also involve psychological mechanisms that are different from the affect programs.

Despite the fact that there is large agreement that BET still represents the major program for scientific research on emotion, in the last few years the theoretical and empirical basis of BET have been heavily criticized on many grounds: first and foremost, BET have been critiqued for their incapability to account for the variability and context-sensitivity of emotions. Moreover, most of these criticisms highlighted the extent to which classic formulations of BET were indeed theoretically naïve, and caused them to mistake some culturally encoded folk categories for universal behavioral patterns. Also, while some researchers claimed to have found the brain signature of each basic emotion, and others were even able to predict the emotional experience given a specific pattern of neural activation, critics of BET stressed that such neural patterns are greatly overlapping, and thus do not count as bona fide neural joints.

Accordingly, a new emerging trend recommends abandoning BET and replacing it by constructionist, dimensional, appraisal, somatic, or enactive dynamical alternatives.

However, too radical detractors of BET run the risk of throwing away the baby with the bath water, neglecting to what extent BET provided workable epistemological strategies for understanding the human emotions by studying animal emotional circuits, and often committing themselves to “anthropodenial” positions characterized by the a priori rejection of humanlike traits in other animals and viceversa. Therefore, other authors have begun to sketch refined BET in order to spare some of its most interesting insights while addressing some of the abovementioned issues.

For instance, Nico Frijda and Jerry Parrott proposed to downsize the basic emotion from actual affect programs to dispositional action readiness, that they call ur-emotions; Andrea Scarantino and Paul Griffiths argued that while folk categories do not designate basic emotions in the sense of the affect program tradition, some members of ‘anger’, ‘fear’, ‘disgust’, ‘happiness’, and ‘sadness’ categories do still meet biological basic-ness criteria. In addition, basic emotion theorists could embrace an antiessentialist approach to natural kinds, and reformulate their definition of a basic emotion accordingly.

For this Research Topic, we encourage articles aimed at exploring the extent to which the whole BET should be abandoned and replaced by alternative ones or, vice versa, whether reformulations of BET still represent the most viable research program in the study of emotions.


Keywords: basic emotions, affect programs, complex emotions, somatic marker hypothesis, ur-emotions, natural kinds, core affect theory, dynamical systems account of emotion, Appraisal theory, folk categories


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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01 January 2018 Manuscript

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01 January 2018 Manuscript

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Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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