A provocative new study out of Scotland studied human facial expressions – and our ability to read them – and came away with the conclusion that human beings are really only hardwired for four emotions:
This leaves us with four "basic" emotions, according to this study: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted. These, the researchers say, are our biologically based facial signals—though distinctions exist between surprise and fear and between anger and disgust, the experiment suggests that these differences developed later, more for social reasons than survival ones.
Of course the study looked only at computer-generated expressions, which are somewhat less nuanced than you get from actual people with actual emotions. And to see something in an instant is wholly unlike the experience of navigating real-world feelings such as anxiety, depression or love on a daily basis. One could be forgiven for calling this a study of responses rather than feelings per se, a point the authors concede:
"Our data reﬂect that the six basic facial expressions of emotion, like languages, are likely to represent a more complex set of modern signals and categories evolved from a simpler system of communication in early man developed to subserve developing social interaction needs," the authors wrote. By that they mean these four emotions are the basic building blocks from which we develop our modern, complex, emotional stews.
Other cultures might disagree, of course. And there is no question that these studies, while valuable, do not begin to address what happens when experience and circumstance combine into the puzzle of human psychology.