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Primary and Secondary Emotions

 

Explanations > Emotions > Primary and Secondary Emotions

Primary emotions | Secondary emotions | So what

 

A useful notion in understanding how we feel is that of primary and secondary emotions.

Primary emotions

What is felt first

Primary emotions are those that we feel first, as a first response to a situation. Thus, if we are threatened, we may feel fear. When we hear of a death, we may feel sadness. They are unthinking, instinctive responses that we have. We will typically see these in animals also, which confirms our suspicion that they have an evolutionary basis.

Typical primary emotions include fear, anger, sadness and happiness (although it is worth noting that these can also be felt as secondary emotions).

Often transient

The problem sometimes with primary emotions is that they disappear as fast as they appear. Their replacement by secondary emotions complicates the situation, making it difficult to understand what is really going on.

Secondary emotions

What is felt next

Secondary emotions appear after primary emotions. They may be caused directly by them, for example where the fear of a threat turns to anger that fuels the body for a fight reaction. They may also come from more complex chains of thinking.

Simple or mixed feelings

Secondary emotions may be simple feelings or may be a mix as more emotions join the fray. Thus news of a wartime victory may start with feelings of joy, but then get tinged with sadness for the loss of life.

So what?

If you want to diagnose a person's condition, then looking at primary and secondary emotions gives you a fuller picture.

To find the real issue or cause of the person's condition, look for the primary emotion. Do not blindly accept the emotion you see as the primary emotion, but try to find what may have come first.

The secondary emotions give you a picture of the person's mental processing of the primary emotion. Question them, slowing down their mental process, to determine the internal reasoning as to why they came to feel the secondary emotions. This will often be unconscious and can be as big a surprise to them as it is to you.

See also

Basic emotions, Fight-or-Flight reaction

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