Much has been written about the power of emotional intelligence, including popular works by various experts such as Daniel Goleman, Chris Voss, Travis Bradberry, and others.

Further, according to a 2013 study on the topic of emotional intelligence and sales, strong emotional intelligence is a trademark characteristic of high performers, especially those who can combine their strong E.I with other interpersonal skills such as active listening.

However, as much has been written about what emotional intelligence means and the various techniques to better identify with ourselves and others, relatively little has been said about the actual mechanics and operations of emotions themselves.

Emotions, it turns out, are in some ways surprising simple, and in others dazzlingly complex.

Primary emotions

According to the social psychologist Jonathan H. Turner, the feelings and expressions of all animals, including humans, are rooted in four primary emotions:

  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Happiness

However, how we differ from other animals is that we evolved past these four basic emotions because our brains grew capable of providing far greater amounts of our sole primary positive emotion – satisfaction and happiness.

“Thus, a critical feature of humans’ neuroanatomy is the jury-rigging of new centers for pleasure on top of more ancient areas of the mammalian brain.”

In addition to being more positive emotion oriented, we also became able to create higher levels of intensity for each of the four primary emotions, deeply broadening the spectrum while providing us a key evolutionary advantage and all of the social benefits that come with it.

“One outcome of the rewiring of the brain was to expand the varieties of primary emotions that hominids could use and interpret… With more emotions to work with, it is possible to form subtle and complex social relations from more fine-grained attunement of interpersonal responses.”

First order emotions

The next unique advancement in our emotions occurred through the still mysterious ability to combine our primary emotions and create what Turner calls “first order” emotions. For example, similar to how mixing blue and red paint with our brush makes purple, mixing happiness and sadness will create nostalgia, mixing fear and happiness will create awe, mixing anger and sadness will create bitterness, and on and on.

So, why did we develop this unique ability to mix and match our primary emotions into more sophisticated ones? Again, like the expansion of our positive emotions and ability to vary emotional intensities, first order emotions help us moderate and enhance our social interactions by making our negative emotions far less potent.

“For example, if fear is combined with less levels of happiness, emotions like awe, reverence, and veneration are produced; in this way, fear is transformed into an emotion that can be used for associative purposes such as reverence for moral codes and veneration of others or ancestors.”

Emotions are ever present

Finally, because of how much we evolved to rely on our emotions for enhanced communication and bonding, we are in a sense “bound” to them, in that they drive (what seem like) the most level-headed discussions or economically sound decision making processes.

“Even when individuals are being highly calculative and rational, interacting with others because of perceived rewards, emotions bind them, in two ways. One is a back channel of affect that inevitably seeps out. Another is neurology of calculating utilities, which depends on the ability to attach emotional valences to alternatives; thus, the most “cold-hearted” calculation is in reality, a highly emotional experience.


If we are to become truly emotionally intelligent, we must continue to challenge ourselves to more accurately interpret and analyze the emotions presented.

Here are some ways I believe we can:

  • When experiencing emotions or interacting with others, start by considering which of the four primary emotions are being displayed.
  • Next, when feeling or observing emotions, try to make note of the intensity and gauge our response accordingly.
  • If what we are experiencing or observing seems more complex, consider the various combinations we or another could be experiencing: Happiness and sadness?, Fear and anger?, Happiness and anger?, etc.
  • At a minimum, be aware that emotions are present and powerful drivers of every interaction, decision, and behavior – To be ignored only at our own peril.

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