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Primary and secondary emotions

What are primary and secondary emotions?

An emotion is a mental and physiological feeling state that directs our attention and guides our behaviour. The most fondamental emotions are widely believed to be universal, common to all cultures. Probably you will be able to identify correctly the emotion expressed by the following photo:


In fact, the basic, or primary, emotions are anger, disgust, fear, sadness, happiness and surprise. The basic emotions have a long history in human evolution, and they developed, in large part, to help us make rapid judgments about stimuli and to correctly guide appropriate behaviour.

Besides these basic emotions scientists have described a larger, more complex set of secondary emotions. These emotions are accompanied by cognitive processes and be categorized along more than one dimension: they can range from low to high level of arousal and from being unpleasant to being pleasant. For instance, feeling relaxed is described as being rather pleasant accompanied with a low level of arousal.

An important distinction between basic and secondary emotions is on the speed of processing. Our response to a basic emotion such as fear, for instance, is immediate and fast. We see a child running in front of our car, we immediately push the brakes. Our heart races and adrenaline is released. In contrast, our response to a secondary emotion is slower, such as the sadness we feel over the loss of a beloved pet. These emotions are usually more complex and more refined.

What emotions are more likely to impact our food intake?

In the relation to our eating behavior, the secondary emotions play a large part in determining if and what we eat. They can cause an eating behavior response caused by ingested food or the sight of food. Their role, however, is not exclusive. Fear usually inhibits hunger: this makes sense from a biological and evolutionary point of view, as this mechanism evolved to kick in when short-term survival is suddenly in danger. Other primary emotions can modulate eating in both directions: some people might less when they are sad, other might eat more. We will discuss this topic more in depth later this week.

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This article is from the free online course:

Food for Thought: The Relationship Between Food, Gut, and Brain

EIT Food