A culture shock for universal emotion

The Boston Globe looks at the increasing evidence against the idea that there are some universally expressed facial emotions.

The idea that some basic emotions are expressed universally and have an evolutionary basis was suggested by Darwin in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

The concept was further explored by psychologist Paul Ekman who conducted cross-cultural research and reported that the expression of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise were universal human characteristics.

However, these ideas have recently been challenged and a debate recently kicked off in an issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science and the Globe article does a great job of covering the fight and its fall out.

…psychologists Azim Shariff and Jessica Tracy detail accumulated evidence that they argue makes the case for an evolutionary view of emotional expressions [pdf]. Some, they say, may have evolved for a physiological purpose — widening the eyes with fright, for instance, to expand our peripheral vision. Others may have evolved as social signals. Meanwhile, in a commentary, Barrett lays out a point-by-point counterargument [pdf]. While humans evolved to express and interpret emotions, she contends, specific facial expressions are culturally learned.

Barrett believes that the universality of recognizing facial expressions is “an effect that can be easily deconstructed,” if, for instance, subjects are asked to give their own label to faces instead of choosing from a set of words. In another recent paper [pdf] in the same journal, she argues that a growing body of research shows our perception of facial expressions is highly dependent on context: People interpret facial expressions differently depending on situation, body language, familiarity with a person, and surrounding visual cues. Barrett’s own research has shown that language and vocabulary influence people’s perception of emotions. Others have found cultural differences in how people interpret the facial expressions of others — a study found that Japanese people, for instance, rely more than North Americans on the expressions of surrounding people to interpret a person’s emotional state.

A fascinating discussion that tackles a taken-for-granted psychological assumption that is now being challenged.

Link to Globe piece on culture and facial expression.

7 thoughts on “A culture shock for universal emotion”

  1. We may well have evolved certain facial expressions (eyes widening, etc.) for practical, survival reasons. But the ability to notice and even interpret those expressions could have evolved independently. One of the primary symptoms of autism is the inability read such emotional “cues” in others, whether thru body language or speech. And there is one interesting theory that autism may be simply a “throw-back” to our earlier Neanderthal relatives, who were perhaps “out-organized” by the evolution of facial recognition, and more advanced communication, social & cooperative skills in their new competitors, Homo Sapiens.

  2. My first thoughts reading this post were the implications for an understanding of autism (two autistic sons). I see the first comment addresses this. One thing I find interesting is my kids find exaggerated (cartoony) facial expressions and body language hilarious, but are poor at picking up on “real-life” situations.

  3. I would think (before reading the article) that I mostly agree. However, infants display emotions that are not cognitively formed, not learned, but innate.

    And, as with everything, it’s a sliding scale, but I have always felt that the ability to communicate subjectively is the glue that has allowed homo sapiens to form societies, and to develop not just situation threat awareness but to make the ability to share and co-operate possible.

    It seems intuitive to me that all higher communication languages develop locally, and language is just one of them.
    Art and emotion are specific to culture, beginning with the starting formation of tribal units, which was a paradigm shift in natural selection of evolution, as individuals within co-operative units are necessarily more secure.

    As the ‘cone of influence’ (think cone of light) widens, it becomes more and more necessary to initiate co-operation with larger groups, but this has happened too recently to become an innate instinct(specific expressions) across the species.

    The ability to express pain, suffering, and happiness, or such, seems to me, necessary to foster enough understanding to form units, on some fundamental level, anyways, so I would think some level of universal expression may be cross-cultural.

  4. I wonder if any of these authors realize that other animals besides humans have facial expressions as well.

    Rub a cat or dogs stomach and tell me you don’t see them smile at you. Feed them and tell me you won’t see the same.

    All animals have a pretty set standard of emotions and emotional cues. There are likely many more that are learned, but it seems likely that there are at least some inherently known emotions that have evolved because of specific situations.

    1. Sorry to disagree with the pet “enthusiasts” here, but the article isn’t about whether animals have emotions or not. Although it’s fairly well known that domesticated animals’ success with humans has come from their ability to recognize and mimic human cues and expectations. In other words, they become our little “mini-me”, allowing us to project whatever we want to see onto them (although cats maybe not so much)!
      “Oh look at Spot, he’s my best friend, and see, he’s even smiling at me!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: