Multivoxel Pattern Analysis Does Not Provide Evidence to Support the Existence of Basic Emotions

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Saarimaki et al. (2015) published a paper claiming to find the neural “fingerprints” for anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, and surprise using multivariate pattern analysis. There are 2 ways in which Saarimaki et al.'s interpretation mischaracterizes their actual findings. The first is statistical: a pattern that successfully distinguishes the members of one category from the members of another (with an accuracy greater than that which might be expected by chance) is not a “fingerprint” (i.e., an essence); it is an abstract, statistical summary of a variable population of instances. The second way in which Saarimaki et al.'s interpretation mischaracterizes their results is conceptual: their findings do not actually meet the specific criteria for basic emotion theory. Instead, their findings are more consistent with a theory of constructed emotion. In our view, Saarimaki et al. is elegant in method and important in that it demonstrates empirical support for a theory of emotion that relies on population thinking; it is also an example of how essentialism—the belief that all instances of a category possesses necessary features that define what is, and what is not, a category member—contributes to a fundamental misunderstanding of the neural basis of emotion.

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