Emotion And The Face

The relationship of emotion and the face is fascinating and complex. Three questions are worth examining before we look at the specific expressions: What are the main facial expressions? How universal are they? How much can we really tell from the face? Psychologists and anthropologists have had much to say of interest to artists on all these subjects.

The Fundamental Expressions

I have shown a lot of pictures of the face to people in the course of writing this book. I wanted to find out if there were certain expressions, of the many I'd collected on file, which would be seen in a similar way. And there were some faces that inspired nearly universal agreement; some were so clear, in fact, that people I showed them to were not only able to pinpoint the emotion, but were able to make some surprisingly good guesses at what was happening when the photos were taken. Even some faces I thought too subtle to be recognized were seen as expressing the same thing by almost everyone.

Asking people their immediate impression of a photograph of a face is, in fact, a basic method psychologists have also used in their investigations. Re search has been done not only here, but all over the world, and attempts have been made to compare responses between one culture and another.

Six basic categories

One researcher, Paul Ekman, compiled a list of every study of this kind he could locate. There is a convincing pattern to the result; most researchers conclude that there are certain universal expressions, and over and over again, the same six categories of expression came up: sadness, anger, joy, fear, disgust, and surprise. Photographs that fell into one of these categories were seen in the same way by most people; photographs that showed other expressions were not generally agreed on. As a result of such surveys, most psychologists have concluded that these six categories, and only these six, should be considered as universal.

I also include, in an appendix, descriptions of those expressions that are the product of physical states. These include pain, sleepiness, passion, and physical exertion. Like the emotional expressions, these are faces everyone shares, but in terms of instant recognition, they tend to be slightly more ambiguous.

Why certain expressions are left out

There are other expressions that might occur to us that do not seem to fall into any of the above categories. These are mostly of three sorts: (1) subjective and circumstantial; (2) one of the basic six, but by another name; (3) a blend of two of the basic six. Let's look at these groups one at a time.

1. Subjective and Circumstantial

There is a lengthy list of expressions that belong in this category: faces that I'm dead certain I see, but you see as very different. Only including those I have seen described in various books, I could list reverence, greed, vanity, flirtatiousness, suspicion, stubbornness, jealousy, stupidity, shyness, pity, disappointment, expectation, hate, and remorse. Take a picture—of the face only—that you are convinced shows any of the above feelings, show it to twenty people for their impressions, and chances are you will get at least fifteen different responses. There would be no pattern of agreement as you would get with a sad face or an angry one.

Remember that we are confining ourselves to what we can learn from the face alone. If you want to depict shyness, for example, and create a sto-


Face Expression Sad Emotion Cartoons



Ekman Snarl

rytelling picture with a young woman with a slight smile and downcast eyes being courted by an ardent young man, you could certainly get the message across. But if you crop the picture so it just shows the girls face, it becomes impossible to interpret the downcast, smiling look in just one particular way. Out of context, it might be seen as embarrassed or self-satisfied. Bona fide expressions do not need the context to be readable; circumstantial expressions do.

2. The Same, but by Another Name

Many of the names for expressions that might occur to us as universally recognizable are simply other names for sadness, anger, joy, fear, disgust, or surprise. Worry for example, is a less intense version of fear. Sternness is a mild version of anger (as is, perhaps, stubborness). Disdain is a restrained version of disgust. Terror, astonishment, and apprehension are all synonyms for fear.

3. A Blend of Two of the Basic Six

Certain fascinating faces may include aspects of more than one emotion. A sad smile may look sensitive, or bittersweet; a surprised smile may look dazzled, or happily amazed. Fear can mix with surprise; anger can mingle with disgust. We know that facial expressions are full of suggestiveness and nuance. It seems, however, that behind this complexity, there is a simple pattern: six fundamental categories that, in their blendings and varying degrees of intensity, account for the complexity we see.

Darwin and the Question of Universality_

Charles Darwin was the first to suggest that facial expression is a universal language.

Darwin prepared a questionnaire on expression, which he sent out to missionaries, teachers, and colonialists in remote parts of the British Empire.

The questionnaire asked respondents to note the expressions of aboriginal peoples. From this survey, along with many years of his own observations, Darwin concluded that those expressions he observed in England were the same as those described elsewhere. This conclusion has been supported by many recent studies of the subject, some of people who had no previous contact with any outside society.

Why Do We All Smile the Same Way?

•Being of a curious and inquiring bent, Darwin then attempted to find out why people with no cultural links vent their emotions in identical ways. He eventually concluded that expressions are innate, rather than learned, behavior. If we had to be taught to smile, everyone would do it differently. Smiling, crying, and the other emotional expressions thus fall into the category of instinctive behavior.

According to Darwin, the universal facial expressions can be traced back either to our common prehistoric ancestors or to our infancy, when they performed some useful, instinctive function. Even though they have long ago ceased to be of any use, adults continue to perform these expressions through habit any time the feeling originally associated with the expression arises. Primitive man, for example, snarled when he was angry, because exposing the sharp canine teeth was a way of threatening to bite somebody. Modern people still snarl when angry enough, without the slightest intention of biting anyone or the awareness that biting has anything to do with what's happening to the face.

When Do Babies Recognize Smiles? According to Darwin, and important to this book, our ability to perceive emotion from the face is also innate. We don't have to be taught the connection between a sad expression and a miserable state of mind. We know it without ever having to think about it. In fact, Darwin claims that such a connection can be made by children in the first year of life.

Another crosscultural issue (not mentioned by Darwin) is how people in different societies repress certain emotions and express others. There are many societies where women must repress their anger, for example, but men are free to express it. It's an interesting and important topic, but one that is beyond the scope of this book. But no matter what a particular society is used to seeing, the recognition of the expressions we discuss will remain unaffected. In a country where public displays of, say, anger are rare, people will still know an angry face when they see one.

How Much Can We Tell from the Face? Emotions can often be readable from the face; moods are something else again.

Moods are states of mind that we carry with us on a daily basis. Emotions are the intense, often overwhelming bursts of feeling that arise, only occasionally for most of us, in response to some powerful stimulus.

To what extent are these day-to-day moods visible on the face? Let's'take the example of fear. It is a fact of nature that if we are terrified enough, in response to some cataclysmic event, our response will be etched on the face. Fear sends a massive, sudden jolt through the nervous system, provoking a host of physical reactions: increased rate of heartbeat and breathing; a fresh dose of adrenaline; and the spasmodic contraction of certain involuntary facial muscles, creating the face of terror.

But how about a long-term mood of anxiety? Well, that depends. As well-socialized adults, we are used to coping; going about our daily life and social activities in spite of a disruptive inner mood of anxiety, or, say, depression. We have a social mask that can pretty well disguise any modest attack of mood. An acquaintance may know we're anxious only by indirect clues: we're not as animated as usual, or we seem nervous or jumpy. It is unlikely to be made so obvious that someone might come up to us and say, "Are you having an anxiety problem or something?"

So the answer to the question, can we read someone's mood in his face, is—sort of. We can interpret a particular emotional expression as suggesting an overall mood: "He looks so glowing and happy, he must be in love."

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