Are Emotions Universal?
Emotions are both the most common of human experiences and the most problematic
to explain. Social scientists have argued over their universality, such as by listing basic
expressions found in all cultures or noting the appearance of emotions in other species.
Philosophers and psychologists have attempted to find universal emotions by
examining human behavior, comparing different cultures, and studying other species. Even in
ancient Greece, there were the same divided opinions that we see today. Plato and Aristotle
regarded emotions as an inherent part of humanity, whereas the Stoics saw emotions as
childish and strove to eliminate them entirely from their lives (Knuuttila 6).
In modern times, American psychologist Paul Ekman did important work finding that
there were six basic emotions: happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, anger, and disgust (Ekman
550). His research centered on the physiological and sociological basis of these emotions.
These six emotions are all caused by experiences that humans and animals share, whether
that involves finding food, love, and companionship or confronting foes, injury, and death.
Charles Darwin examined how expressions are performed by muscles and nerves, and
concluded that the same general principles can be applied with satisfactory results, both to
man and the lower animals (Darwin 18). Evolution seems the best argument in favor of
emotions in other species, since the physical structures that perform such involuntary
expressions are shared by numerous species to different degrees.
The idea that emotions are universal will continue to be controversial, but all the
evidence seems to be in support of it being correct. Whether living in an apartment, a hut, or
a burrow, countless species experience similar emotions. What a pleasing thought!
Darwin, Charles. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. London: John
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Ekman, Paul. Are There Basic Emotions? Psychological Review, vol. 99, no. 3, 1992, pp.
Knuuttila, Simo. Emotions in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2004.