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Is tenderness a basic emotion?


The article presents the case to consider tenderness a basic emotion, using the criteria proposed by Ekman (in Handbook of cognition and emotion, Wiley, England, 1999). The first part of the article reviews the relationship between tenderness and the related concepts of love and empathy. The next section reviews evidence concerning whether tenderness meets some of Ekman’s criteria. The last section reports an experiment testing whether tenderness meets Ekman’s criterion of distinct subjective experience. Participants watched scenes designed to induce different emotions. Results showed that a scene could induce high levels of tenderness and low levels of joy if that scene also induced high levels of sadness. These results suggest that the subjective experience of tenderness is distinct from that of joy.

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  1. 1.

    Of course, some scholars do not subscribe to the basic emotions approach (e.g., Ortony and Turner 1990). For them, the question of whether tenderness is a basic emotion would probably be meaningless. Those scholars might still be interested in the findings on tenderness discussed in the literature review, as well as those from the present study, even if those findings are not interpreted in terms of a basic emotions approach.

  2. 2.

    This interpretation was suggested by an anonymous reviewer.


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The experiment reported in the present article was part of the author’s doctoral dissertation at the University of North Texas. I thank all the members of the dissertation committee for their input. I also thank an anonymous reviewer of a previous version of this article for telling me about Lishner’s research.

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Correspondence to Juan Pablo Kalawski.

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Kalawski, J.P. Is tenderness a basic emotion?. Motiv Emot 34, 158–167 (2010).

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  • Tenderness
  • Basic emotions
  • Love
  • Empathy
  • Caregiving
  • Positive emotions
  • Joy
  • Sympathy
  • Attachment theory