Jim Russell's research centers on human emotion. His interest began with the question of how large-scale environments (such as homes, offices, malls) and social events (chatting with a friend, working with a team) influence emotion and thereby influence various activities and outcomes. This led to the fundamental question of how emotions can be described and then assessed. Work on description includes the research on emotion concepts, research on cultural similarities and differences in the description of emotion , and on the assessment of emotion and related concepts such as mood. Many people believe that faces express emotion and these facial expressions therefore provide another way to tell what someone is feeling (facial expression). A different line of research concerns how children come to understand and experience emotion.

Some specific ideas pursued are a circumplex model of emotion, a prototype theory of emotion concepts, which leads to the idea that specific emotions are understood in terms of scripts, a defence of the traditional view that displeasure is the opposite of pleasure, a skeptical review of the traditional view that basic emotions are universally and easily recognized from facal expressions. More recently, the question has arisen of how these various ideas fit together within a larger framework. An analysis is being developed called "the psychological construction of emotion."