‘Research says there are only 4 emotions’ – one Aspie’s response

One day, my counselor/therapist asked me to try to identify what I was feeling.  He listed off the basic categories on his fingers.  “Happy, sad, mad, scared.”

I froze.  Not in fear, but in confusion.  What if what I was feeling was more vague and/or complex than that?  How do I shoehorn it into just one category?

I took my best wild-arse guess.

I don’t remember what it was.  What I do remember is getting home and thinking, “Happy, sad, mad, scared” just doesn’t cut it.  I can’t speak for other Aspie/autistic people, much less the “rest of the world” at large.  But I can speak for myself, and I’m thinking that those categories are much too simplistic, at least for this Aspie.

Sure, “happy, sad, mad, scared” are the four accepted principal emotional categories, but my (and probably others’) emotions run deeper and more complex than that.

For example, we might feel irritated.  An allistic (neurotypical/non-autistic) person might easily peg this as part of the “Mad” category.

But for Asperger’s/autistic people, that’s probably not entirely true.

I know that when I’m irritable, I’m not mad.  At least, not yet.

Rather, my irritability might actually be the result of overstimulation or anxiety.  So does my irritability get classified based on its root emotion (“Scared”) or based on its outward appearance/manifestation (“Mad”)?

Another example might be what I feel when someone sends me something touching from afar.  All at once, I’m deeply touched (much more than I can say), and yet I’m also wistful that they’re not here with me for me to hug them and say thank-you.  I would label that second emotion as a sort of grief, even though they haven’t died; I’m still grieving in that I miss them.  How to classify that?  “Happy” doesn’t even touch the first emotion, and “Sad” might attempt to describe the second, although pathetically.

Where did my counselor/therapist get his four basic emotional categories?  Well, to his credit, he stays on top of current research.  This research says that there are only four basic emotions.

Say what?  I went digging.

The research in question was published in the medical journal Current Biology in 2014 (link to the study abstract), a division of the Cell family of journals.  Cell is a reputable source, and I do respect their material.

When I dug deeper into their conclusion (which is probably valid, for most people), I realized that they were basing this 4-category finding off of facial expressions.  The researchers found that when faced with a particular stimulus, a person makes an initial basic facial expression, which then gets modified after the fact, depending on what the stimulus was, to form the more complex emotion.

For example, they found that when faced with surprise and fear, people made the same basic initial facial expression, which then changed (within a few fractions of a second) to reflect the difference.  The thinking is that the initial facial expression is more biologically (neurologically?) based, while the modified expression is more culturally-influenced.  (I had help analyzing this research; this article (link to The Atlantic) did a decent job paraphrasing it.)

I have a huge question about that: what about people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum?  In the United States’ CDC’s official diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder, part A-2 reads: “Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.”  (The bold emphasis is mine.)

Let’s sum this up so far…

  • Research findings are studying human emotion and attempting to categorize it.
  • They’ve found only four basic biologically-based emotions.
  • They’re forming these categories based on facial expression.
  • Yet, Asperger’s/autistic people may display fundamental differences in (or even a total lack thereof) facial expression from the rest of the population.

So, what about those of us on the spectrum?  Where does that leave us?

Maybe I’m missing the point of the emotional categories; a therapist/counselor or other related professional might be reading this and think that I’m a nit-picky nerd who knows just enough to be dangerous, but not much more than that.  They might say to themselves, “well, duh; that’s why they’re called broad categories!”

But I think it’s possible that I might be making a valid point here (?)  The research didn’t mention anything about people on the spectrum.  The researchers are simply coming out with this new evidence, and applying it with a broad brushstroke across the rest of humankind.  As these findings are replicated in additional studies, they will come to be accepted as fact.

What does that mean for us?  I’m not sure; it’s too early to tell.  What has me concerned is that new findings like this, no matter how benign they appear at the time (“chill out!  It’s just facial expressions and emotional categories”), they become yet one more allistic (non-autistic) yardstick or “standard” against which we’re measured, one more (or more severe) “deficit” we now get smacked with, one more jab at the (false) notion that we’re sociopaths who are incapable of emotion (we’ve already been lumped in with sociopaths (link to my response to this fiasco), thanks to Time Magazine’s recent cyber-bullying article).  “Little things” like this only add up like pixels, to form an overall image in the public’s mind.

I also think that the four basic emotions are a bit too simplistic.  Even though the categories are indeed broad ones, we, the people on the spectrum, tend to take things more literally, and we may recoil at such a notion, being already so tired of getting picked-apart, over-simplified, and often even pigeonholed, that we may rail against the establishment of such minimalist groupings to try to explain how we feel.

They think it’s like this…


…when really, it feels like this:


We already have a tough enough time explaining how we feel, without having to try and figure out which category it belongs to, especially when the outward expression and inward feeling are two different things, such as in my “irritability” example above.

Part of me says, “why get worked up over what a bunch of researchers found about emotions?  You’re not a counselor, therapist, or anyone else who has to keep up with the research or deal with its findings.”

And that’s a valid question and statement.  My answer is, although I’m not personally responsible for keeping up with the latest psychology/neurology research findings, any of us who see a counselor, therapist, or other professional who is responsible for doing so, may be affected by those findings.  We may not be in the psychology field trenches ourselves, but we may enlist the help/assistance or support of someone who is.  We rely on those people for help and support.  The problem arises when enough of those studies come together to further obscure their understanding (and that of society at large) of our true nature and thus, their perception and treatment of us.


    1. Thank you! 😊 Yeah, it really grabbed me, too. I’m a sucker for pretty colors 😂💜


  1. I agree with your response/question on this classification.
    There are more than just 4 emotions as there can be many more stimulus and many many more circumstances under which they happen/appear.
    This is true atleast for aspie.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That thing about the facial expressions – I tend to smile inappropriately a lot. I usually don’t even notice I’m doing it at first, but of course when I realize it I will apologize and change my expression. It doesn’t mean I’m happy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean :). I remember laughing when my mom was crying; a drunk driver had just killed a family friend and I had to try to stifle my laughter. But I wasn’t happy. I was crushed. Or I’d smile when I got scolded for something, even though I felt anything but glad about it. I might have come off as smug, but that wasn’t the truth at all. Our emotional reactions and facial expressions don’t always tell an accurate story, which just makes us even more self-conscious and makes the situation worse. It’s not like we don’t know it’s inappropriate, but we can’t always control it. *sigh*

      Liked by 1 person

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