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Emotion can be expressed in the face, voice, posture, and gesture. Since Darwin, most researchers have concentrated on facial expressions. The scientiﬁc study of these expressions has been an important site for disputes over the existence of a universal human nature and the extent to which human culture is grounded in biology.
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1. What Is At Stake In Discussions Of Facial Expression?
The nature and/origins of facial expressions of emotion may not seem at ﬁrst glance to be a matter of momentous concern for the social sciences and humanities. However, the emotions are widely believed to be a critical feature of moral agency, and are even more widely believed to be a critical part of esthetic response. If all healthy people display, recognize, and respond to the same limited number of emotional expressions, this suggests a similar uniformity in emotion itself. In that case, moral and esthetic judgments may have universal validity. Conversely, if humans expressions of emotion are as diverse as the concepts embodied in diﬀerent languages and if humans can only understand the expressive repertoire of their own cultural group, this would seem to support cultural relativism about emotion and thus about ethics and esthetics.
A related debate concerns the extent to which emotional expressions can be given evolutionary explanations. If so, then the emotions they express are presumably also part of the evolutionary inheritance of humanity. The idea that emotions are the products of evolution has been used to argue for a range of highly controversial claims. One argument runs from the premise that emotions have evolved to the conclusion that emotions are universal. Another argument runs from the premise that emotions have evolved to the conclusion that emotions are biologically determined in the sense that that they cannot easily be altered by changing environmental factors. Because of the critical role of emotions in human social interactions, biological determinism about emotions supports the view that certain forms of social organization are biologically inevitable.
2. The Origins Of Research On Facial Expression
The scientiﬁc study of facial expression began with the nineteenth century anatomical investigations of Bell (1844) and Duchenne (1867 1990). The most inﬂuential work of the nineteenth century, however, was undoubtedly Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Darwin 1872). The book started life as a chapter of Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871) but grew so large that it became a separate work. In Descent … Darwin aimed to show evolutionary continuity between human ethical behavior and animal behavior and also, via his theory of sexual selection, between the human esthetic sense and the esthetic sense of animals. In Expression … he aimed to show evolutionary continuity between the human and animal emotions by demonstrating continuity between the facial expressions of humans and animals. Darwin explicitly targeted Bell’s claim that the muscles of the human face were created by God to express human emotions. This led him to argue that many movements that now express emotion were vestiges of previous ways of life. ‘With mankind some expressions, such as the bristling of the hair under the inﬂuence of extreme terror, or the uncovering of the teeth under that of furious rage, can hardly be understood, except in the belief that man once existed in a much lower and animal-like condition’ (Darwin 1872, p. 12). Some authors have denied that Darwin ascribed any current adaptive functions to emotional expressions (e.g., Fridlund 1994), but, to take just one example, Darwin argued that humans, unlike chimpanzees, open their mouths when terriﬁed because, unlike chimpanzees, humans must breathe through their mouths when ﬂeeing.
Darwin’s analysis of the contributions of the various facial muscles to emotional expressions drew heavily on Duchenne and Bell, but he made substantial original contributions, particularly with respect to homologies between human and animal expressions. His conclusions conform closely to currently accepted views of the muscular basis of facial expression. Darwin also pioneered the use of photographs, including some images made by Duchenne, to test the ability of observers to infer emotional state from isolated facial expressions. Certain photographs elicited very general agreement from Darwin’s subjects and he took these to show the ‘true’ expressions of the associated emotions. Photographs relating to facial expression are shown in Fig. 1.
Regrettably, Darwin only used photographs in England and relied on a less satisfactory technique to study the expression of emotion in other cultures. He dispatched questionnaires to missionaries, traders and others, asking them about the facial movements used to express emotion by the people amongst whom they lived. Unfortunately, Darwin’s questionnaire suggested which facial components he expected to represent which emotions and thus made it very likely that his observers would read the desired results into their observations. Darwin’s failure to use photographic evidence in his cross-cultural research is puzzling when considered against the background of the extensive contemporary interest in ethnographic photography.
3. The Aﬀect Program Theory Of Facial Expression
Darwin’s work on emotional expression was neglected for the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century. Anthropologists such as Weston La Barre (1947) and Ray Birdwhistell (1963) argued that culturally speciﬁc emotional states were signaled in a culturally speciﬁc code of facial expressions and gestures acquired by the individual during their upbringing. This culturalist tradition was displaced in the late 1960s by a powerful revival in the Darwinian approach. Many of Darwin’s speciﬁc ﬁndings about facial expression were conﬁrmed and extended, most notably by the psychologist Paul Ekman and his collaborators (Ekman 1972). One famous experiment used subjects from the Fore language group in New Guinea with a minimum of prior contact with Westerners and their cultural products. These subjects were given three photographs, each showing a face, and told a story which was designed to involve only one emotion. They were asked to pick the photograph showing the person in the story. This method has the advantage that no translation of the names of emotions is needed. The subjects were highly successful in picking the photograph intended to express the emotion appropriate for each story. The New Guinean subjects were also asked to act out the facial behavior of the people described in the stories. Videotapes of their responses were shown to US college students. The students were generally accurate in their judgements of the emotion intended by the New Guineans. The six facial expressions that ﬁgured in these experiments were labeled surprise, joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust. These, and a seventh previously confounded with disgust and now labeled contempt, have become the basis of Ekman’s inﬂuential revival of the Darwinian approach to expression.
Ekman conceptualizes facial expressions as key components of aﬀect programs, complex patterns of facial and other actions controlled by the central nervous system and triggered in response to some speciﬁc stimulus (Ekman 1984). This conceptualization derives, ultimately, from the idea of a ﬁxed action pattern as it ﬁgures in the classical ethology of Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen. These founders of the modern study of animal behavior rediscovered Darwin’s work on the emotions and interpreted it as preﬁguring many of their own ideas (Lorenz 1965). Emotions, they argued, were innate patterns of behavior that had evolved by natural selection. Darwin’s emphasis on the vestigial nature of many human facial expressions was interpreted using the ethological concept of ritualization (Tinbergen 1952). Patterns of behavior that once served a practical function, such as the opening of the mouth and retching exhibited in disgust, have been retained and modiﬁed by natural selection because of their value as signals. Hence the primary biological function of facial expressions in humans is as a signal of the person’s emotional state. The distinctive experimental paradigm of classical ethology is the deprivation experiment, which aims to show that an animal produces a pattern of behavior even when it is deprived of experiences that would seem necessary for the behavior to be learnt. The ethologist Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1973) examined the facial movements of children born deaf and blind and showed that these children used the same patterns of facial action as other children to display their emotions. He concluded that these behaviors were part of humanity’s evolutionary heritage.
Ekman and his collaborators have handled cultural diﬀerences in the expression of emotion with the concept of a display rule, a concept exempliﬁed in another of their experiments. Twenty-ﬁve American and 25 Japanese college students were shown neutral and stress-inducing ﬁlms while alone in a room. The repertoire of facial behaviors shown during the stress phase by the two sets of subjects was very similar. However, when an experimenter was introduced into the room and allowed to ask questions about the subject’s emotions as the stress ﬁlm was shown again, the facial behavior of the Japanese diverged radically from that of the Americans. Video analysis showed the momentary occurrence of negative emotional expressions and their replacement with polite smiles. An important feature of the display rule conceptualization of cultural diﬀerences is that the evolved expressions remain intact but interact with culturally speciﬁc behaviors to determine the observable pattern of facial action.
4. Universalism vs. Relativism
The research leading to the aﬀect program theory and subsequent discussion have helped to clarify some of the issues about the universality of emotion. The aﬀect programs have the same output across cultures, but they do not have the same input. There are some universal elicitors of aﬀect programs in childhood, such as very loud noises, which elicit fear. There are also systematic biases in the conditioning of aﬀect program responses that could lead to a convergence in the eliciting conditions for adult responses. The general picture, however, is that aﬀect programs come to be associated with whatever stimuli locally fulﬁll a broad functional role, so that the fear aﬀect program comes to be associated with whatever locally constitutes a threat, the disgust response with whatever locally appears noxious or unclean, and so forth. Distinguishing between the universality of outputs and that of inputs makes it clear that at least some of dispute between universalists and cultural relativists about emotion is merely semantic. Universalists regard two cultures as manifesting the same emotion when they respond in the same way to diﬀerent stimuli. Relativists insist that having the same emotion means responding in the same way to the same things.
Further clariﬁcation results from distinguishing the question of whether emotions are pancultural (found in all cultures) from the question of whether emotions are universal (found in all healthy individuals). The types of evidence normally gathered by universalists are designed to show that emotions are pancultural and have little bearing on the question of universality. Emotions might be pancultural but still be like blood type or eye color, with several diﬀerent types of individual in each population. Models of the evolution of social emotions typically predict that competing types will be maintained in the same population through competition. It is surprising that the issue of whether emotions have evolved is still so strongly linked to the issue of whether there is a single, universal, human emotional nature.
Finally, the debate over universality could be clariﬁed by abandoning the last vestiges of the traditional dichotomy between learnt and innate behaviors. Some critics of the aﬀect program theory have argued that a biological perspective on emotion is inappropriate merely because the emergence and maintenance of emotional responses depends upon environmental factors. Conversely, evidence that emotions are pancultural and thus likely to be the products of evolution is still thought to imply that these emotions are genetically determined and resistant to modiﬁcation by environmental changes. These inferences ignore the facts that the environment plays a rich and constructive role in the development of even the most stereotypically biological traits, such as bodily morphology or sexual behavior. Evolved emotions, like the rest of evolved psychology, will likely make use of many reliable features of the environment of the developing child in order to construct and maintain themselves. They will be open to cultural and individual variation as a result of changes in these features, as well as through genetic variation. Griﬃths (1997) has suggested that questions of universality can often be usefully reframed in terms of the biological concept of homology: are two emotions in diﬀerent individuals or cultures homologous, that is, are they modiﬁed forms of a response in a common ancestor of those individuals or cultures?
5. Contemporary Alternatives To The Aﬀect Program Theory
Cultural relativism about emotions, now known as social constructionism, has undergone something of a revival in recent years (Harre 1986). The older relativist tradition rested its case on anthropological ﬁeldwork. The modern revival relies less on empirical data and more on conceptual argument. Many social constructionists start from the widely accepted idea that emotions involve a cognitive evaluation of the stimulus. They argue that emotions will inherit the cultural diﬀerences in the way emotion stimuli are conceived. If two cultures think diﬀerently about danger, then, since fear involves an evaluation of a stimulus as dangerous, fear in these two cultures will be a diﬀerent emotion. This argument does not impress universalists, many of whom will allow that the two emotions are interestingly diﬀerent but maintain that their similarities are more than suﬃcient to make them the same thing, namely fear. As well as purely semantic disputes of this kind, relativists and universalists focus on diﬀerent parts of the domain of emotion. The aﬀect program states seem to require minimal cognitive evaluation of the stimulus via pathways that the neuroscientist Joseph le Doux has christened the low road to emotion (Le Doux 1996). Social constructionists often refuse to regard these isolated physiological responses as emotions, reserving that term for the broader cognitive state of a person involved in a social situation in which they might be described as, for example, angry or jealous. It is thus unclear whether the debate between contemporary social constructionists and their universalist opponents has a substantial factual dimension, or whether it reﬂects only a preference on the one side for tractable, reductive explanations and a desire on the other side to forestall the scientiﬁc neglect of the social, transactional aspects of human emotion.
The main contemporary alternative to the aﬀect program theory is the paralanguage theory of emotional expressions, a view whose leading exponents are Fridlund (Fridlund 1994) and James A. Russell (Russell and Fernendez-Dols 1997). Paralanguage theorists argue that the aﬀect program theory exaggerates the automated nature of emotional expressions and neglects their voluntary, performative aspect. They deny that facial expressions are involuntary expressions of discrete emotional states. Paralanguage theorists have accumulated considerable evidence of audience eﬀects on the production of emotional expressions. They take this to show that expressions are produced for the beneﬁt of the audience rather than to express the feelings of the person making the display. They question the aﬀect program view of emotions themselves, as well as of emotional expression, arguing that emotional states vary continuously along several axes, rather than falling into a few discrete types. Paralanguage theorists argue that the experimental results of Ekman and his collaborators are largely artifactual. They are particularly critical of the use of forced choices from a list of emotion terms dictated by the experimenter. This procedure forces a range of responses to a range of facial signals into a few boxes deﬁned by the experimenter. The critics argue that this cannot provide evidence for the existence of a limited number of stereotyped facial expressions, since this assumption is built into the experimental procedure.
Although paralanguage theorists criticize the experiments usually taken to establish the universality of emotion, some of them accept that emotional expressions have evolved and would therefore presumably expect the ﬂexible signaling system they postulate to be at least substantially pancultural. Fridlund argues that an evolutionary perspective actually favors the paralanguage view, since involuntary signals of true emotional state would be subverted by the evolution of dissimulation and deceit. While this is an important perspective on the evolution of emotional expressions, it does not constitute the decisive argument that Fridlund seems to suppose. Veridical signals do evolve in nature, often by making use of so-called hard to fake signals. The cost of being unable to suppress a signal of emotional state may be balanced by the advantage of being believed. A purely theoretical argument based on the evolutionary dynamics of signaling systems seems more likely to support the view that ‘examples of emotional behavior lie along a continuum from expression to negotiation’ (Hinde 1985, p. 989) than a purely expressive or purely manipulative picture of emotional expression.
Facial expressions of emotion are an important site for the debate between universalism and relativism because both sides believe that here they can oﬀer substantial evidence for their positions. An examination of this evidence need not serve only to support one or other side of the debate. The actual details of emotional expression, its evolution, and its development in the individual can be used to question the validity of the dichotomies between biology and culture, ﬁxity and malleability, universality, and idiosyncraticity which are assumed by both sides.
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