How to Use the 6 Basic Emotions in Writing

Updated on October 10, 2019
RachaelLefler profile image

I've studied anime, manga, and Japan for over a decade. My favorite anime/manga are sci-fi and seinen (mature).


Psychologists have identified six basic human emotions. These are appealing to use in writing because they're basic and universal. They appeal to people in a strong way, pulling our emotions the way magnets pull on iron. Persuasive advertising and political campaigns use one of these six emotions to get people to do whatever it is they want them to do, by making them feel something powerful. I'll go into more detail later, but the six emotions are as follows:

The 6 Basic Emotions

  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Fear
  • Surprise

All of these emotions have the advantage of being easy to read, memorable, primal, and culturally universal. The last is important, considering the internet's ability to connect people from diverse regions of the globe.

Anthropologists have said that humans even make the same or similar facial expressions for these basic emotions across (nearly) every human culture. Amazing, no? So, appealing to the "big 6" human emotions works, because people will have these emotional reactions on a primal level, regardless of culture or social expectations. Social norms tell us how to react to or express these emotions, but everyone will experience them regardless of social norms. Even many animals also have them.

For example, dogs feel very sad when separated from their humans, or other dogs they live with, for a long time. Many animals experience disgust when they smell or taste something that is disagreeable to them. Almost all animals experience fear because fear is a response to perceived dangers the animal is likely to encounter. For example, sheep fear predators, and if they smell a predator such as a wolf, they will alert other sheep and run away from the perceived danger. That's part of the power of these emotions—they're animalistic, instinctual reactions that acted as survival tools for our ancestors.

Fear told us to build a shelter. Disgust told us not to eat rancid meat. Pleasure told us to eat things that were good for our bodies. Sadness and loneliness experienced when away from other humans drove us to become more social, which led to the rise of civilization, agriculture, industry, and the societies we have today. All of these feelings compelled human actions toward what was best for human survival, the same way they do for animals. The good news is that it makes influencing people so much easier than some might make it out to be. It really is about hitting one of six targets.

My hypothesis: Behind every big influencer out there, there is one of these six emotions.

I can talk about who I think uses what emotional effect in their branding. Nobody owns this secret, it's not proprietary or copyrighted, and yet you will see that the most successful, charismatic, and influential people and organizations in the world are using this method. Maybe even some of them don't even realize that they're doing it! They might think they were just lucky. Success is not merely about luck. It's largely about figuring out what kinds of messages people will respond strongly to, and then distributing those messages effectively. So you can do that too—quite easily in fact! Let's jump right in.



What It Is:

Joy, laughter, triumph, mirth, beauty, pleasure, winning, success. Largely, it's tied to getting what you want, or general good feelings.

Why It's Effective:

People want to associate with something that will make them happy and share things that make others happy. In marketing, it's a well-known strategic move to use pleasant feelings, images, or ideas with a product you're selling. Use this the most if you want to keep your brand's image positive.

Who Is Using It:

Who isn't? There are sidebar ads that will show cute kittens when their product has nothing to do with animals, for example. Donald Trump used positive messages in his campaign speeches, whereas Hillary Clinton used a lot of negative terms, like when she called supporters of her opponent a "basket of deplorables". But nobody likes being associated with someone who sounds bitter or whiny, so Trump's positivity helped him win the election.

Other big examples include Coca-Cola and Disney, which are both corporations who built impressive empires largely on positive associations alone. In Coca-Cola commercials, the Coke product and company logos are always associated with something pleasurable and fun, such as cute polar bears. When Disney markets its theme parks, the focus is on the message that a trip to Disneyworld or Disneyland will be a magical, life-changing experience. Their success is the ultimate payoff of the old saying "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar". (You can catch a lot of flies with Coca-Cola, but that's perhaps not going to make it into the final cut of any Coke commercials.)

Case Study: Beyonce
Case Study: Beyonce

Case Study: Beyonce

Below, YouTuber TJ Kirk explains the popularity and praise of Beyonce as the result of her successfully branding herself. Beyonce is a moderately good singer, but her modest talent alone does not explain her excessive praise.

She has cultivated an image of being classy, beautiful, kind, even a goddess. This is using the "happiness" emotional appeal for success—associate your brand or yourself with positive qualities and you'll go a long way: $350 Million long.



What It Is:

Emotional pain, hopelessness, grief, loneliness, helplessness, feeling tired, lacking energy, depression, sorrow. If happiness is getting what you want, the root of sadness is the absence of something that is wanted or missed. It's not always about crying and sobbing. It can also manifest as suicidal thoughts, fatigue, and emotional flatness.

Why It's Effective:

If something makes us sad, it alerts us to a wrong that needs to be righted—to something not there that needs to be there. Marketing that uses sadness usually incorporates it into a call to action—this is sad, but you can do something about this problem by doing X. So, you get people to feel sad about a problem, and then sell what you do as a solution.

What needs to be avoided is when you have the negativity, without the constructive or positive message that people can do something about whatever the issue is.

Sadness is a powerful motivator for action. It alerts people that something is wrong, and motivates them to act to change it.

Who Is Using It:

When I think of sadness and commercials, I think of mostly charity organizations using this method of introducing a sad situation (like cancer, world hunger, or animal abuse) and then giving hope in the sadness via the work that the charitable organization is doing to solve the problem.



What It Is:

Frustration, hatred, the desire to harm someone or something, malice, spite. Jealousy and envy could be seen as a sub-type of anger. Anger is a visceral response that can be hard to control, especially when we're talking about annoyance or irritation. Anger means you no longer see the person you're angry at as a person, but instead see only the thing you're angry about, and you want to get it out of your life for good. This can lead to positive change, but it also often leads to people hurting each other.

Why It's Effective:

Like sorrow, anger is a big motivating factor to get people to take action. People fear the angry mob, not the happy mob, the sad mob, or the indifferent mob. Why is that? Because anger fuels action like little else. Most big political actions in history were caused by anger. Anger causes revolutions, rebellions, and wars. In medieval times, blood feuds between families would last for generations, like in Romeo and Juliet. The mark anger has left on human history surpasses that of any other emotion.

Who Is Using It:

Mostly, politicians and political activists. Their goals are usually to provoke outrage in large numbers of people, prompting either violent action or nonviolent protest. The movement for "Brexit" could be an example of politicized anger on the right, and the organization "Antifa" is an example of politicized anger on the far left.

You won't see a lot of corporations using anger. That's because angry groups tend to want swift, decisive, radical action or change. Corporations want consumer behavior that is docile and predictable. But where they could use anger our outrage potentially in advertising is to slam their competitors.



What It Is:

Similar to anger, but a little different. Disgust is revulsion at something. Humans can have visceral disgust towards things like the smell of feces, or "moral disgust" towards socially taboo actions, like incest. Scientists believe humans developed disgust so that we would instinctively avoid ingesting bad things. At the root of disgust is the desire to remove, get rid of, dispose of something. The desire to distance oneself from something, some person, or some behavior.

Why It's Effective:

Disgust is a very primal thing. Since it would have been so important tens of thousands of years ago for humans to survive, it gives a strong response. It's linked to morality too, people tend to view behaviors they strongly disapprove of as disgusting.

Who Is Using It:

A lot of social conservatives, mostly. I would even go so far as to say that moral disgust is a primary factor in socially conservative political positions, such as opposition to gay marriage.

But liberals have a kind of economic moral disgust I've seen too—disgust manifesting as outrage against the big banks and the 1%. Vegan animal rights activists also use disgust in their advertising, to try to get people to be viscerally appalled by the meat and dairy industries.



What It Is:

Fear is like disgust in that both involve a desire to avoid or distance oneself from something. Fear is intense and immediate—we run, or prepare to fight, the thing we're afraid of, in nanoseconds. Fear means "big threat" whereas disgust just means "don't eat that/drink that/touch that/go near that". Humans have a tendency to fear "others" or people from outside our circles and in-groups. People fear the unknown more than they do the familiar. Fears can be subjective and personal, but some fears are common to all people.

Why It's Effective:

Fear is a powerful motivating tool. If I'm worried about my health, it's easier to sell me health insurance than if I'm not afraid of a health problem. Religious organizations often use the basic human fear of death or getting older as a motivator for people to cling to their beliefs.

Fear is often used in terms of getting people to believe that the alternative to the thing you're selling is unsafe. You position your brand as the trustworthy, reliable answer to the thing that causes fear.

Who Is Using It:

Politicians also often use fear, motivating people from the fear that their opponents will not keep the country safe. On the left, voters fear environmental disasters and oligarchic rule by a few ultra-powerful corporations who keep everyone else out. On the right, voters fear immigration, terrorism, and cultural decline. Successful politicians almost always use fear by presenting themselves as the solution to their voter base's most common political fears.



What It Is:

The facial expressions of surprise and fear are similar, but surprise simply means we are encountering something sudden and unexpected, but not necessarily a bad thing. There can be good and bad surprises, depending on whether we had positive or negative expectations.

Why It's Effective:

Encountering the unexpected is often enjoyable to people. Sure, being constantly bombarded with surprises would get old, and make the surprises less exciting. But the cool thing about surprise is that it takes us out of established patterns, routines, or ways of thinking. Surprise is a kind of escape from mundanity.

Who Is Using It:

Click bait. Bloggers. A lot of people who have to write about something commonly discussed, like say, interior design, in a new, creative way. So what a common blogging tactic is to say something unexpected in a headline. To go against the grain, tackling popular opinion or conventional wisdom. Some of my most successful blog posts have done this. I challenged the popularity of Big Bang Theory, and in another article, I challenged the common refrain that the Star Wars prequel trilogy was god-awful and ruined the franchise.

There's a reason those posts were more successful than other posts I've written. Most people, to be frank, don't care about the obscure anime stuff I usually talk about. I make posts for hardcore anime nerds, but most people aren't Googling for reviews of DearS or specific seasons of Sailor Moon. But when I surprise people by challenging a commonly held belief about a massively popular, or widely criticized, thing, I get more attention.

Similarly, it helps for you to segment your blog posting strategy, regardless of the topic you want to write about. For the aforementioned interior design topic, you would have dedicated "fans" of the topic who obsess over tiny details, follow all the trends, and know all the jargon, but there's fewer of those people. So to get really high numbers, you have to appeal to people who couldn't care less what color their walls are or what their bed is made of.

Surprise is a powerful tool when you want to do that, because it gets them to pause and rethink what they're doing. To reach those people to an interior design blog, don't confuse them with complicated ideas or obscure terms. Instead, get them to think about interior design even if they haven't before.

Something like "Best Lighting for Hosting a Party" that connects your expertise with a problem or question they might have, is good. But if you can say something surprising or unexpected, that's even better, like "10 'Green' Light Bulbs That Aren't Actually Good for the Environment". That headline will get more people to click because they will be curious as to why their assumptions are being challenged. Using surprise means finding a way to challenge the status quo. Make sure your argument is supported by solidly researched evidence, but surprising people by challenging the current way everybody thinks about a topic will get an increase in views overnight, I guarantee.

So, using the basic 6 emotions of Anger, Happiness, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Surprise will give you powerful tools that will help you write articles that really resonate with audiences, getting you more views and social media shares. A lot of people talk about layouts, formats, grammar, sentence structure, and many nitty-gritty details of writing. But what a lot of them miss is the big picture; that you probably want your writing to resonate with an audience. You want your writing to be something people will respond to on an emotional level, you're not just writing a manual or an encyclopedia. And using emotions in your work will make it stand out and appear less boring than competitors' blogs on the same topic.

I know that when I analyze my own blog posts, the most successful ones don't have a genre, franchise, anime creator, or format in common—but what they all have in common is that they use some kind of emotional appeal.

For example, my post about why autistic people are more likely to be anime fans uses emotion-laden anime images with captions about social problems and bullying - making a big emotional impact that ought to resonate not only with autistic people, but with anyone who's dealt with social ostracism. And that is one of my top 10 most successful posts. So there you have it; resonate with one or many of the 6 major human emotions, and you've got a hit.


Submit a Comment
  • RachaelLefler profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael Lefler 

    10 months ago from Illinois

    "First, there are 7 universally core emotions not 6."

    Do you have a source for that? I had many that said there were six.

    "Second, why use this platform to spread your political views?"

    Uh, I was bending over backwards throughout this entire article to talk about how both liberals and conservatives use emotion in their rhetoric.

  • profile image

    Jay Warner 

    10 months ago from The Americas, Europe, Asia

    First, there are 7 universally core emotions not 6. Second, why use this platform to spread your political views?

    For my money, here's a fine example of disgust:

    "I moved on her, and I failed. I'll admit it.

    I did try and fuck her. She was married.

    And I moved on her very heavily. In fact, I took her out furniture shopping. She wanted to get some furniture. I said, "I'll show you where they have some nice furniture." I took her out furniture—I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn't get there. And she was married. Then all of a sudden I see her, she's now got the big phony tits and everything. She's totally changed her look.”

    If HRC is living rent-free in your head, my only emotion is schadenfreude.

  • nishibonya kakoti profile image


    2 years ago from India

    Thank you for sharing this. I appreciate the insight with which it has been penned down.keep it up!

  • profile image


    2 years ago

    Very well thought!

  • Angel Guzman profile image

    Angel Guzman 

    2 years ago from Joliet, Illinois

    I never really thought about this but you are so right about the big 6. Good read.

  • RachaelLefler profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael Lefler 

    2 years ago from Illinois


  • Ericdierker profile image

    Eric Dierker 

    2 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

    Well no matter what, your hub is excellent advice and information for any writer. This definitely will have influence on my writing.

  • RachaelLefler profile imageAUTHOR

    Rachael Lefler 

    2 years ago from Illinois

    Thanks for reading.

    The emotions you mention are already subcategories or kinds within the "big 6" - melancholy and loneliness are kinds of sorrow, or melancholy can be a kind of happiness depending on the personal experience of it, and joy is a kind of happiness. You can categorize most emotions as being primarily made up of one or a combination of "big 6" emotions. The reason the "big 6" are on the list and other emotions aren't is because they're the most universal across cultures, time periods, languages, and nationalities. Something like "melancholy" is more culturally specific in meaning and expression. It's not that it's not also useful for blogging, but the "big 6" are like I said, primal, instinctive, resulting in a powerful push or pull.

  • Ericdierker profile image

    Eric Dierker 

    2 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

    Really cool. I think I go with bland and end up with happiness. So this has helped open my mind to pay attention more in my writing.

    I believe that the basic emotions are like the 5 senses. I think science is waking up in both areas. Perhaps ten in both areas.

    For example I think that Melancholy, Joy Loneliness and inspired should be added to the basic emotions.

    Thank you for sharing this, I think it will effect my writing.


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