The theory of constructed emotion: Emotions aren’t hard-wired or universal

Are there universal emotions that we can detect via facial expressions? The scientific evidence says no. In How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett offers an alternative reading of the evidence:

[On] different occasions, in different contexts, in different studies, within the same individual and across different individuals, the same emotion category involves different bodily responses. Variation, not uniformity, is the norm…. Despite tremendous time and investment, research has not revealed a consistent bodily fingerprint for even a single emotion.

The classical view of emotion says that there are discrete and distinct universal emotions with their own brain hard-wiring that produces them. This view says that across cultures people experience and display the universal emotions like anger, happiness, and sadness in very much the same way.

In bullet point form, the classical view of emotion says:

  • Emotions are universal
  • Emotions are built-in
  • Emotions are distinct, discrete kinds that don’t overlap
  • Emotions can be detected and classified accurately via facial expressions and other external signs (whether by humans or artificial intelligence)
  • Emotions are triggered as part of the emotional system and don’t involve cognition

By contrast, the theory of constructed emotion as outlined inĀ How Emotions are Made says:

  • Emotions are not built-in but are constructed within us as a combination of physiologic sensation, plus neuroplastic brain wiring, plus cultural meaning
  • Emotions are not universal but are culturally specific
  • There are categories of emotions such as happiness, sadness, fear, and so on but there is broad variation within these categories
  • No one-to-one correspondence between neural structures and the “basic” emotions:
    • Different neural structures can give rise to one category of emotion such as fear
    • Different emotions can be generated by the same neural structure
  • Emotions can be detected and classified using facial expressions or other behavioral indicators when combined with situational context and cultural understanding

What about Ekman’s six basic emotions you ask? What about his finding that people across cultures can identify these from facial expressions alone? More recent research casts doubt on these findings, suggesting that what you can determine by observing only a person’s facial expression (or other bodily measures) is positive or negative affect, nothing more.

The circumplex model of emotion, consistent with the theory of constructed emotions, says that emotions comprise valence (positive, neutral, or negative affect) and arousal (physiologic energy level). Thus you can place emotions in a two-dimensional plane.


Different people may label different combinations of valence with arousal in different ways. Different cultures have different names and concepts for various emotional experiences.

The theory of constructed emotion has important implications for our emotional well-being, how we interact emotionally with others, and for how we build artificial intelligence systems to detect and otherwise interact with emotions.