In Pixar's new animated film Inside Out, the emotions of an 11-year-old girl—joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust—are personified into living, breathing characters, offering what some have praised as novel insight into the human condition.
Notably missing, however, is guilt—a feeling many people I know would argue is their dominant emotional state. When asked why, director Pete Docter, told NPR: "I'm not actually sure if guilt is an emotion." Come again? said Jews and Catholics everywhere.
Inside Out's creators took pains to ground the film in science—yet psychology experts themselves have trouble classifying human emotions. "We’re not 100 percent sure how to define what emotions are," Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a psychology professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst told Fusion.
When pressed for a definition, she said, "Emotion is some combination of arousal plus cognitive interpretation." In other words, a physiological response—such as smiling, shaking, or experiencing an increased heart rate—mixed with our brains trying to figure out what the response means.
Inside Out's creators have said the emotions chosen for the film are based on the work of famed psychologist Paul Ekman, who proposed decades ago that we feel six basic and universal states—the five depicted in the film, plus surprise (which the filmmakers dropped for creative reasons).
Now researchers including Eckman debate whether these "natural emotions" are the limit, or where we feel hundreds more. Which brings us back to guilt—turns out the scientific jury is still out on whether it's an emotion.
Guilt is definitely an emotion
Some psychologists, including Whitbourne, believe guilt is an emotion—albeit a sophisticated one. "Guilt isn't in the top six or seven emotions, it's definitely a higher level emotion," she said. "More like a combination of sadness and anger."
What makes guilt tricky is that, like shame, it's learned. People only feel guilty when they think they've done something wrong or violated a social norm.
For example, a man with multiple wives in a society that accepts polygamy doesn't consider himself a cheater, and therefore doesn't feel guilty. Another man, somewhere else, might take multiple wives and feel heaps of guilt because, in his society, the act is considered wrong.
"Yes, guilt is learned," said Whitbourne, "you have to associate that condition with another condition." And yet, just because it's not innate doesn't mean it's not an emotion.
To clarify why, let's look at the example of shame. Whitbourne, like other experts, doesn't believe shame is an emotion because it's too reliant on outside influences. "Shame doesn't seem to fit criteria," she said. "It can lead to guilt, but I don't think it's an emotion." This is because psychologists believe one feels shame when he or she has done something wrong in the eyes of someone else, which in turn impacts one's self worth or self image.
On the other hand, "you can feel guilty about your own decisions." Even if others don't think what you did was wrong, you might believe it was wrong—thus leading to feelings of guilt.
Guilt is not an emotion
And yet, the fact that guilt is learned explains why other experts believe it's not an emotion.
"Is guilt an emotion? No, but 'feeling guilty' is," said Andrew Ortony, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. "But that’s because the emotional aspect is imported by the word 'feeling.'"
Ortony, who has studied emotional theory and written several academic papers about guilt, said "guilty is a technical state of having violated some rule or convention of law. And when we feel guilty, we feel bad about being guilty." The emotion, therefore, is simply "feeling bad." (Perhaps, as Whitbourne suggested, a combination of sadness and anger.)
Perhaps this is because his definition of an emotion, while similar to Whitbourne's, has an extra caveat: we have to care about whatever it is we're feeling. "It's hard to have an emotion on something of which you're indifferent about," Ortony said.
For example, a person could murder someone and be determined "guilty" in a court of law, but unless that person personally thinks what they did was wrong, they may not feel guilty at all.
"For me, that's the quintessential feature of emotion—it hinges on our concern or values," he told Fusion. "We evaluate our world in terms of things that matter to us."
The simpler way to look at it, he said, is to think about the word "abandoned" and the Biblical story of Moses. As he previously laid out in a paper from 1987:
"A nonemotion term like 'abandoned' (understood in the sense of 'forsaken') can be used to refer to an emotional state when employed in the context of feeling ('feeling abandoned'), whereas in the context of being ('being abandoned'), it can not."
"What the linguistic context feeling does is to smuggle in psychological and affective properties that do not necessarily belong to the state in question."
In this example, Moses was "abandoned"—but this act did not define the Biblical hero's psychological state, nor his emotional one. "It's the same case with guilt," he said. "The work is being done by the word 'feeling,' not by the word 'guilty.'"
So emotions are—what, exactly?
As Ortony pointed out, nothing about emotional science is concrete. "Most scientists know what the definition is of the domain they're studying," he said. "Emotion scientists generally do not, and that can be frustrating."
And murky definitions about emotions in general means guilt probably won't be officially anointed an emotion anytime soon. But what about those so-called "basic emotions," like we see in Inside Out—can we definitively consider joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust emotions?
Sort of. Psychologists "have all kinds of arguments as to why those are special," Ortony told me. "I think the arguments are specious, but it's a good place to start. No one will argue they are not emotions." And I won't feel guilty for asking.
Fusion is partly owned by Disney’s ABC network.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.