Skip to content

Are emotions 2D?

I recently became aware that there is a new development in emotion classification. Previously, as far as I knew, emotions were thought to be human universals, give or take some variation (such as the emotion “metagu” among the Ifaluk islanders, see Linquist 2007) and researchers like Paul Ekman, who works as a human ethologist of the emotions, has devised a scheme in which there are six “basic” emotions:  anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Evolutionary psychologists like Cosmides and Tooby have extended this further, arguing that guilt, fear, jealousy, etc., are adaptive responses that increase fitness in our ancestral state.

Russell’s “circumplex” taxonomy of emotional states. From here.

Recently, though, there has been a move to classify emotions in a more simplified manner: by valence and arousal (Russell 1980). Basically these are independent variables: a response can be positive or negative valence, and weak or strong arousal. So you end up with a 2-dimensional scheme (sometimes offered as a polar plot, but topologically it’s the same thing). A revised version of this adds a dimension for dominance (one emotion may override another), but according to the Wikipedia article, dominance is not required or supported by later research. A version of the 2D model is a 3D map of emotions in terms of neurotransmitter levels, called the Lövheim cube of emotion, but this doesn’t map onto the valency aspect cleanly.

Lövheim’s cube. From Wikimedia

Whatever the final account is, it is worth noting that this makes emotions grade into each other. They are not distinct and unique qualitative features of the human psyche. Fear and frustration are just coordinate locations in that space. Ekman’s universals may or may not be so universal.

One “universal” emotion that is missing from these taxonomies is love, and yet love is widely and consistently regarded as a basic human emotion in popular and philosophical discussions. Often in psychology it seems this is tied to sexual desire or attraction, and yet the philosophical tradition, going back to at least Aristotle if not earlier, distinguishes various kinds of love: erotic, personal, and fondness (eros, agapê, and philia). But if the 2D model is correct, then love is not a basic emotion, arousal and valence are, and what we call “love” is basically just a social name for a variety of states.

This is not my field so I am probably going to miss or mess up something here, but I’d like to make a couple of suggestions. First of all, sex and love are in my mind quite distinct. One is about bodily pleasure and social grooming (yes, just like bonobos, but also like most other apes if not all of them). The other is about a positive regard for another person. I think the distinctions made in the philosophical and theological literature are based on social functional categories that tie sex and love in one case (eros), supposedly unconditional positive regard in another (agapê, a Christian theological term), and personal pleasure from others in the third (philia). If sex and the value we take from others is separate from the positive regard we have for others, then to my mind, there’s just love. Love for partners, family members (particularly children), and friends is all of a muchness, and the differences are just socially constructed.

What is the practical implication of this, if correct? Well, it means one ought not to expect there is some magic threshold of positive regard beyond which one can say one is “in love”, or has found “true love” (perhaps Miracle Max had it right, and true love is a bluff), there is just love. So one might say one loves a lover, a friend or a child in the same way. However, the social context will differ, and, for example, sex will be something one engages in with socially appropriate individuals (with or without love being a part of that engagement), while one will expect a strong degree of love for children and partners that is not expected from friends (although it need not be absent in that case either) because that is the social norm for friendship.

The emotional constitution of human beings is, like everything else, an evolved derivation of biological aspects of our shared groups (apes, primates, mammals, vertebrates, etc.), and the 2D account (and if successful the Lövheim cube also) classifies these aspects of our engagement with the external world. These need not be adaptive, contrary to the evolutionary psychological approach. They merely need to be outputs of our shared and derived psychological mechanisms. What is adaptive here might be the socially constructed functional categories that play a role in folk psychology: honour and shame, for example, would be adaptations to the sociocultural environment, not the ecological environment, and be transmitted socially rather than biologically (as Linquist argues in the citation above). This is a “dual inheritance” model of emotions, although I think there is no clear boundary between biological and social evolution.

We are at the point in our researches where the neurological aspects of psychology and the behavioural and socially functional aspects are joining up, slowly. The ethical implications, however, seem not to be considered as much as I expected they would be. If love is just a second order outcome of these biological aspects of humans (or turn out to be physically interpretable, although a simple focus on neurotransmitters is obviously going to be insufficient to biologise emotions), then we can think of these categories of emotion, like honour, shame, love, disgust, etc., as things that can be modulated or even abandoned when they are no longer socially adaptive. We can now say, I believe, that we love our same-sex friends without it having any sexual connotation at all. We can choose to have relationships that are of varying strength of commitment without needing to meet the expectations of popular psychology or sociology. We might even be able to adopt a plural relationship of sexual partners or a mix of sexual and nonsexual partners in life without prejudicing those relationships by constructed categories derived from past institutions like marriage that rely upon the ideologies of class, religion or economics.


  1. I think a number of things are going on here, John. Basically, our terms for emotion don’t map neatly onto neuroanatomy and physiology. Ekman wants to map emotion (terms) onto facial expression. He (and others) may also treat facial expression as a proxy for physiological system. The 2D scheme of valence and arousal has nothing to do with neurophysiology. The neurotransmitter 2D schem is, of course, linked to neurophysiology.

    Note that there’s a well-established tradition in emotion research that thinks of emotion as arousal plus something else, where that something elso inteprets that arousal.

    Yes, love and sex are different. There’s a relatively new research tradition that goes back to John Bowlby (the psychoanalyst who coined the phrase “environment of evolutionary adaptation”) that links “love” to the attachment system that mediates relations between caretakers (e.g. mothers) and children. Sexuality is mediated by a different system. And there’s an account of romantic love that sees it as involving those two systems acting together toward a single object.

    Note that Ekman’s universality has come under recent and fairly severe critique.

  2. Carl Carl

    What kind of adolescence did you have if you think “love” is a pleasant emotion? Different than mine, to say the least.

  3. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    Interestingly there is *some* research linking temperament and personality types to variations in dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, 5-HT, estrogen, oxytocin and testosterone. This suggests to me that the biochemistry behind behaviour and social functional aspects is rather more complex than the simple diagrams suggest. Perhaps even fitting the data to an attractive hypothesis? Time will tell.

    John – you noticed the absence of ‘love’. That’s a concern as others have championed oxytocin as the biochemical engine for this cluster of emotions. See Paula S. Churchland ‘Braintrust’.

    And then there are the opposite emotions… people have suggested that the opposite emotion to disgust is the feeling of the sacred or holy (another ethical timebomb) – see Jonathan Haidt. If you include love, what about hate, or suspicion (surely a pro-survival emotion)?

    Much more work, as they say, remains to be done.

    • Some emotional reactions must have survival and reproductive fitness enhancing properties, yes. These are the biological aspects of emotion that is captured, however roughly, by the 2D approach. Negative emotional reactions like disgust, however, are a mixture of the biological and social. For example, I find oysters disgusting. The feeling of disgust is real enough, but it is mediated by a social convention that I acquired as a young child and cannot shake. Social experiences trigger biological reactions.

  4. I think oxytocin is now thought to mediate in-groupness. Strong attachment to biological children, high expectations of loyalty, high barriers to entry, and bullying. Not sure how that relates to emotion except through post-coital glow (not inevitable after sex — highly situational) or the peaceful relaxation some people experience from carrying around babies and small animals. It seems complicated.

    “We might even be able to adopt a plural relationship of sexual partners or a mix of sexual and nonsexual partners in life without prejudicing those relationships by constructed categories derived from past institutions like marriage that rely upon the ideologies of class, religion or economics.”

    Well, yes, there have always been a plurality of reproductive strategies, in humans experienced as partly socially mediated and partly temperamental. People who are temperamentally not particularly sexually monogamous can be very understanding of those who are, but the converse often does not apply. The split in sexual and romantic attachment and attraction is demonstrated by people who (for instance) engage sexually with many people and different sexes but only romantically with one individual or with people of one sex.

    *** *** ***
    John — I don’t know what your situation is, but that paragraph sounds like the kind of thing that might be written by someone wanting/needing sexual engagement with a low social commitment. A common complaint of straight men is that the women he wants are prevented by needless constraints of conventionality from having sex with them.

    As a not-particularly-monogamous woman, I can assure you that we exist. As a woman who dates online and is accustomed to being approached by married guys, I can assure you that complaining about the constraints of conventionality is not helpful in the wooing process. It betrays a lack of curiosity about/ respect for the motivations of the object of one’s attentions. It also suggests a certain amount of thinking with one’s dick: I want to bang you, therefore you must want to bang me and the only reason you aren’t acting on your desires is some external barrier. Dicks are notoriously bad at logic.

    I do sympathise. A certain proportion of women close the shop abruptly after menopause causing a supply problem. In your favour though is the fact that a larger proportion of men than women are simply unbangable causing a counterbalancing supply problem for the remaining bangable men. If you enjoy the company of women, enjoy the seduction process, are able to make women feel safe, confident and desirable and offer them something that will make them happy then you are way ahead of the game. (In negotiations with the last married guy I had sex with he said he could hold hands with me in public but not spend the night. Worked for me.) If you are unable to muster any level of friendship or romantic interest towards the object of your sexual interest then it might be simpler to just pay for it, especially if you are only interested in a particular physical type. Otherwise, work with that. Make a nice lady happy.

    Notable: one of my exes worked in a hospital and reported that many of the nurses were just fed up with men. Men were too demanding, too much trouble, and the women just wanted to be able to get on with their own lives. So they would buy a house together with a woman friend and save men for date night. You might want to seek out these women.

    Also notable: a canadian I know lived in Australia for a year and reports that he was extremely attractive to women looking for boyfriends. His explanation is that canadians have a lower tolerance for sexist jerks so that he came off really well by comparison with the local men. Don’t know if that has any bearing on what you’re going through if you don’t have boyfriendness to offer.

    • While I appreciate your comments, I have my beloved friends.

      However, you correctly identified the underlying theme here: that social conventions constrain our ability to love others in ways that are not “natural” (i.e., are not in line with social conventions).

      • John S. Wilkins,

        Recent events perhaps make my point more clearly.

        When you say that conventionality constrains us and prevents us from doing what we would naturally want to do, you sound like this guy mansplaining to a younger, married, monogamous woman why she doesn’t want to have sex with him: “Catholic guilt, Southern childhood, personal history?—?for you probably everything physical is sexual and in a negative way. Both last year and before/after, if I kissed your lips or grabbed your ass, you’d have freaked out! I’d mean it in a totally friendly nonchalant kind of way?—?as a non-sexual act even at the time when I wanted you?—?but you’d understand it very differently. So I am glad that on the very first night (and then clarified once more later), our agreement also included these kinds of rules, where can lips and hands go or not go when we hug.”

        You don’t want to be that guy. He isn’t special. When I responded to your post upthread his business was not yet all over the net, but in my 49 years I have met him many, many times.

        There’s a line at the beginning of a short erotica story about a mature woman enjoying sex and reflecting back on being young in the seventies when sexual liberation for women meant that they had to have sex with “anything that whined.” That is not actually a good definition.

        Conventionality enables a certain kind of life and as such is not simply constraining. Not being assumed to be sexually available to everyone at all times enables women to focus on other things than managing their (and others’) sexuality and to actually accomplish non-sexual goals. You may also have observed that polygynyous family forms are more common in rural areas than urban ones. There are reasons for that.

        I’m open-minded. Sexually I’ve had both short- and long-term relationships with both men and women, both open and closed, married and single. Non-sexually I have a reputation as being especially non-judgmental. But when a guy on a dating site says he’s looking for an “open-minded” woman, he means open to a bad deal and I’m not interested. That doesn’t mean I’m constrained by outdated ideas of marriage or religion. It means I’m choosy. When someone can’t imagine being happy with non-monogamy, it’s a good thing they know what they want. I have no reason to assume they secretly want something else but have been brainwashed by the patriarchy.

        I’m glad you have your beloved friends, but explaining away others’ choosiness and sexual jealousy as simply remnants of outdated institutions is creepy. It sounds as though you are projecting your own desires on other people. Don’t be creepy.

  5. The English word love obviously covers a wide variety of emotions for which Greek and other languages have different words, but the kind of love referred to in the expression “falling in love” or “love at first sight” seems to me to be a fairly specific phenomenon, at least from a descriptive point of view. Now it may be that this kind of love is culture-bound, but where it occurs it is believed to be distinct from having sexual desire for somebody and also from holding them in high regard. One can pant after a person without having the slightest love for them, or love them without liking them very much. I know many married couples who love each other fiercely, and yet can’t stand each other. Where does love of this variety fit in your typology?

  6. That’s a really good article. You might want to check out — it relies on similar framework for quantifying emotions.

  7. One of the hallmarks of human consciousness is our ability to screen out much of the noise of existence and pour our focus onto specific stimulus or thoughts. We also seem to have the ability to attach meaning to those things through symbolic thought processes after physical or cognitive experience with the item in question so that our fast emotional response system (System 1 per Kahneman) can handle *most* of our daily cognitive load. What is not discussed above is the fact that all objects and relationships have many many aspects to them that our consciousness can take turns focusing on (or focus on collectively). This multiplicity of facets causes the sometimes bewildering array of emotions we feel about any *one* thing—because nothing is really a *single* thing. When you talk about “love” as either an emotion on a 2D chart or a description of the totality of my feelings towards someone, I think you are mixing up the simple chemical reactions towards single aspects of an item’s identity with a broader linguistic term we fuzzily use to try to capture the sum total of all our emotional appraisals of another.

    I’ve been working on my own categories of emotions based on something like these categories of cognitive appraisals. Our consciousness can focus on the past, present, or future, and we can appraise something as either good, bad, or uncertain. Arising out of a matrix analysis of these possibilities is a more complex mapping of a standard list of our emotions (love and many others included) than the simple 2D model shown above. My categories also account for the way our consciousness can make many different, separate, or overlapping appraisals—often all at the “same time”. I’ve written about it here ( and would love to hear feedback on it some time. Cheers.

    • Ed, I agree that love is a fuzzy social category (that’s effectively what I said). Philosophers, though, tend to use it as a canonical emotion, and that is what I was pointing out.

  8. I am probable wrong as I am only familiar with love as a sickness from study but could its relationship with marriage be related in anyway to the way ritual is used to order emotion and ensure its dispersed and subject to uniform group participation and stability? Alongside the features you note.

    But thinking more of a dramatic enacted example where standard cures for love-sickness, bathing, song and repeated acts of sexual intercourse are presented in a highly ritualized form and a female is transformed from blood drinking animal with a taste for raw flesh into the “good wife.”

    Mix of elite medical belief and more familiar local folk performance roles.

    Ritual orders the whole transformation of the female ensuring a stable emotional state in her new social role as a subordinate to her husband.

    The emotions you describe as social transmitted all feature here, acted out in a highly dramatic form. Moving through an emotional register and a variety of roles, one emotion into the next.

Comments are closed.