Categorical versus Dimensional Approach to Emotion

Emotion researchers can be divided into two camps based on their answers to the following question: What is the best way to think about emotions? Some suggest emotions are best thought of as a small number of primary and distinct emotions (anger , joy, anxiety, sadness). Others suggest that emotions are best thought of as broad dimensions of experience (e.g., a dimension ranging from pleasant to unpleasant). Those who think that primary emotions are the key are said to take the categorical approach. Hundreds of terms describe dif ferent categories of emotions. Averill (1975), for example, compiled a list of 550 terms that describe dif ferent feeling states. This is similar to the situation with basic trait terms, in which psychologists started with thousands of trait adjectives and searched for the fundamental factors that

Pleasant Unpleasant Emotions

Happiness can be thought of as a state or as a trait. People high in trait happiness experience frequent happiness states, or have a lower threshold for becoming happy. Moreover, happiness is recognized around the world through the expression of smiling. People from all cultures smile when they are happy.

Happiness can be thought of as a state or as a trait. People high in trait happiness experience frequent happiness states, or have a lower threshold for becoming happy. Moreover, happiness is recognized around the world through the expression of smiling. People from all cultures smile when they are happy.

underlie those many variations, concluding that there are probably about five primar personality traits that underlie the huge list of trait adjectives.

Emotion researchers who take the categorical approach have tried to reduce the complexity of emotions by searching for the primary emotions that underlie the great variety of emotional terms (Levenson, 2003). They have not reached the kind of consensus that is found in the personality trait domain, however . The lack of consensus found in this area of psychology results from dif ferent criteria that researchers use for defining an emotion as primar . Primary emotions are thought to be the irreducible set of emotions, combinations of which result in the huge variety of experienced emotions. This is similar to the primary trait issue discussed in Chapter 3. Various researchers have proposed criteria for determining which emotions are primary emotions. For example, Ekman (1992a) requires that a primary emotion have a distinct facial expression that is recognized across cultures. For example, sadness is accompanied by frowning and knitting the brow . This facial expression is universally recognized as depicting the emotion of sadness. Similarly , clenching and baring the teeth is associated with anger and is universally recognized as anger . In fact, people who are blind from birth frown when sad, clench and bare their teeth when angry , and smile when they are happy . Because persons blind from birth have never seen the facial expressions of sadness, anger, or joy, it not likely that they learned these expressions. Rather, it seems likely that the expressions are part of human nature. Based on these criteria of distinct and universal facial expressions, Ekman's list of primary emotions contains disgust, sadness, joy , surprise, anger, and fear.

Other researchers hold dif ferent criteria for counting emotions as primary . For example, Izard (1977) suggests that the primary emotions are distinguished by their unique motivational properties. That is, emotions are understood to guide behaviors by motivating a person to take specific adaptive actions. Fear is included as a primar emotion on Izard' s list because it motivates a person to avoid danger and seek safety . Interest is similarly a fundamental emotion because it motivates a person to learn and acquire new skills. Izard's criteria result in a list of 10 primary emotions. In T able 13.1 are various lists of primary emotions based on various criteria.

Another approach to understanding the complexity of emotion has been based on empirical research rather than on theoretical criteria. In the dimensional approach, researchers gather data by having subjects rate themselves on a wide variety of

Table 13.1 A Selection of Theorists Who Provide Lists of Primary Emotions


Basic Emotions


Ekman, Friesen, & Ellsworth, 1972

Anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise

Universal facial expression

Frijda, 1986

Desire, happiness, interest, surprise, wonder, sorrow

Motivation to take specific actions

Gray, 1982

Rage, terror, anxiety, joy

Brain circuits

Izard, 1977

Anger, contempt, disgust, distress, fear, guilt, interest, joy, shame, surprise

Motivation to take specific actions

James, 1884

Fear, grief, love, rage

Bodily involvement

Mower, 1960

Pain, pleasure

Unlearned emotional states

Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 1987

Anger, disgust, anxiety, happiness, sadness

Little cognitive involvement

Plutchik, 1980

Anger, acceptance, joy, anticipation, fear, disgust, sadness, surprise

Evolved biological processes

Tomkins, 1984

Anger, interest, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, shame, surprise

Density of neural firing

Source: Adapted from Ortony & Turner, 1990.

Source: Adapted from Ortony & Turner, 1990.

Negative affect

Positive affect


Positive affect


Categorical Model Psychology

Figure 13.1

The dimensional approach to emotion, showing two primary dimensions: high to low activation and pleasantness to unpleasantness.

Figure 13.1

The dimensional approach to emotion, showing two primary dimensions: high to low activation and pleasantness to unpleasantness.

emotions, then apply statistical techniques (usually factor analysis) to identify the basic dimensions underlying the ratings.

There is remarkable consensus among researchers on the basic dimensions that underlie self-ratings of affect (Judge & Larsen, 2001; Larsen & Diener , 1992; Watson, 2000). Most of the studies suggest that people categorize emotions using just two primary dimensions: how pleasant or unpleasant the emotion is and how high or low on arousal the emotion is. When these two dimensions are arrayed as axes in a two-dimensional coordinate system, the adjectives that describe emotions fall in a circle around the two dimensions, as shown in Figure 13.1.

This model of emotion suggests that every feeling state can be described as a combination of pleasantness/unpleasantness and arousal. For example, a person can feel unpleasant feelings in a very high-arousal way (nervous, anxious, terrified) or i a very low-arousal way (bored, fatigued, tired). Similarly , a person can feel pleasant feelings in a high-arousal way (excited, enthusiastic, elated) or in a low-arousal way (calm, relaxed). Thus, the two dimensions of pleasantness and arousal are seen as fundamental dimensions of emotion.

The dimensional view of emotion is based on research studies in which subjects rate their emotional experiences. Emotions that occur together , which are experienced as similar to each other , are understood as defining a common dimension. For exam ple, the emotions of distress, anxiety, annoyance, and hostility are very similar in terms of experience and, thus, seem to anchor one end of a dimension of negative af fect. The dimensional approach to emotion, thus, refers more to how people experience their emotions than to how they think about their emotions. In contrast, the categorical approach relies more on conceptual distinctions between emotions: the primary emotions are those that have distinct facial expressions or distinct motivational properties. The dimensional approach, on the other hand, suggests that what we experience are various degrees of pleasantness and arousal and that every emotion we are capable of experiencing can be described as a combination of pleasantness and arousal (Larsen & Fredrickson, 1999; Larsen & Prizmic, in press).

Some researchers prefer the categorical perspective, finding it useful to thin about emotions as distinct categories rather than dimensions. For example, the emotions of anger and anxiety, although similar in terms of being high-arousal negative emotions, are nevertheless associated with different facial expressions, feelings, and action tendencies. Personality psychologists with a categorical perspective would be interested in how people dif fer from each other with respect to primary emotions, such as anger and anxiety . For example, are there individual or group dif ferences in anxiety, sadness, or aggression? There are also personality psychologists who prefer to think about how people dif fer with respect to the primary dimensions of emotion. For example, who are the people who have a good deal of pleasantness in their lives? Who are the people who have frequent bouts of high-arousal unpleasant emotions? In this chapter , we will cover the research and findings from both of thes perspectives.

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  • Antonio
    What are the two dimensional approach to emotion?
    2 years ago
  • lassi
    Which of the following descriptions of love dimesnional appraoch emotion?
    2 months ago
  • jana
    Which of the following emotions can be described as high on both dimensions of experienced emotion?
    2 months ago

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