Are Facial Expressions Universal?

By Paul Ekman, Dacher Keltner | March 12, 2014 | 0 comments

Charles Darwin argued that we can detect someone’s emotional state by looking at her face. Does new research prove him wrong?

Lisa Feldman Barrett’s recent essay in The New York Times, “What Faces Can’t Tell Us,” seeks to undermine the science showing universality in the interpretation of facial expressions. In her eyes, recent evidence “challenges the theory, attributed to Charles Darwin, that facial movements might be evolved behaviors for expressing emotion.”

Was Darwin wrong? First, let’s get the science right. Darwin never claimed in his great 1872 book, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, that all facial expressions are universal—only a specific set of expressions that he had observed and studied. Nearly 100 years later, famed psychologist Silvan Tomkins helped one of us (Paul Ekman) and Carroll Izard refine and add to Darwin’s list.

Six photographs used by Silvan Tomkins in 1962. Six photographs used by Silvan Tomkins in 1962.

In the late 1960s, Izard and Ekman, in separate studies, each showed photographs from Tomkins’ own collection to people in various literate cultures, Western and non-Western. They found strong cross-cultural agreement in the labeling of those expressions.

Might mass media account for cross-cultural agreement? Ekman addressed this question by studying people in a Stone Age culture in New Guinea, who had seen few (if any) outsiders and no media portrayals of emotion. These preliterate people also recognized the same emotions when shown the Darwin-Tomkins set. The capacity for humans in radically different cultures to label facial expressions from a list of emotion terms has been replicated nearly 200 times.

Feldman-Barrett is right to ask whether individuals in radically different cultures provide similar interpretations of facial expressions, if allowed to describe the expressions on their own terms, rather than from a list. One of us (Dacher Keltner) and psychologist Jonathan Haidt conducted such a study, comparing the free responses to the Darwin-Tomkins set of expressions, and some other expressions with people in rural India and the U.S. Once again, the findings of universality were clear-cut.

Feldman-Barrett ignores two other very powerful data sets that don’t involve showing portrayals of facial expressions to people. These measure spontaneous facial expressions in numerous, different emotional contexts. Ekman and Wallace Friesen published what might be the first such study, comparing the spontaneous facial expressions shown by Japanese and American subjects in a private and public setting, finding universal facial expressions—the Darwin-Tomkins set—in private, and different expressions in public. Since then, over 100 studies have been published measuring spontaneous facial expressions, enough to justify two volumes reprinting the articles of dozens of scientists by Oxford University Press.

Another large body of research has established different patterns of physiology—in bodily changes generated by Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) activity and in brain activity—coinciding with the appearance of the Darwin-Tomkins set of facial expressions. Separate, well-replicated studies have also shown that voluntarily generating the Darwin-Tomkins set of facial expressions produced distinct changes in ANS and brain activity!

Still other studies have related the Darwin-Tomkins set of expressions to distinct responses, including cortisol, oxytocin, dopamine, and the cytokine response that is part of the immune system. This work, ignored in Feldman-Barrett’s critiques, suggests that facial expressions not only tell us about individuals’ feelings but about patterns of neurophysiological activation in their bodies.

Darwin emphasized the importance of some universal facial expressions in establishing the unity of mankind, challenging the racist assertions of his time that Europeans had descended from a more advanced progenitor that Africans. Those findings and the conclusion that all human beings have a shared set of facial expressions remains unchallenged.

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About The Author

Paul Ekman is a professor of psychology, emeritus, at the University of California, San Francisco, and the author of 14 books. Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the founders of the Greater Good Science Center.


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