Was Darwin wrong about emotions?

December 13, 2011

Contrary to what many psychological scientists think, people do not all have the same set of biologically "basic" emotions, and those emotions are not automatically expressed on the faces of those around us, according to the author of a new article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science. This means a recent move to train security workers to recognize "basic" emotions from expressions might be misguided.

"What I decided to do in this paper is remind readers of the evidence that runs contrary to the view that certain emotions are biologically basic, so that people scowl only when they're angry or pout only when they're sad," says Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University, the author of the new paper.

The commonly-held is that certain movements (called expressions) evolved to express certain mental states and prepare the body to react in stereotyped ways to certain situations. For example, widening the eyes when you're scared might help you take in more information about the scene, while also signaling to the people around you that something dangerous is happening.

But Barrett (along with a minority of other scientists) thinks that expressions are not inborn signals that are automatically expressed on the face. "When do you ever see somebody pout in sadness? When it's a symbol," she says. "Like in cartoons or very bad movies." People pout when they want to look sad, not necessarily when they actually feel sad, she says.

Some have proposed that emotions regulate your to a situation, but there's no evidence, for example, that a certain emotion usually produces the same physical changes each time it is experienced, Barrett says. "There's tremendous variety in what people do and what their bodies and do in or sadness or in fear," she says. People do a lot of things when they're angry. Sometimes they yell; sometimes they smile.

"Textbooks in introductory psychology says that there are about seven, plus or minus two, biologically basic emotions that have a designated expression that can be recognized by everybody in the world, and the evidence I review in this paper just doesn't support that view," she says. Instead of stating that all emotions fall into a few categories, and everyone expresses them the same way, Barrett says, psychologists should work on understanding how people vary in expressing their emotions.

This debate isn't purely academic. It has consequences for how clinicians are trained and also for the security industry. In recent years there's been an explosion of training programs that are meant to help security officers of all kinds identify people who are up to something nefarious. But this training might be misguided, Barrett says. "There's a lot of evidence that there is no signature for fear or anger or that you could detect in another person. If you want to improve your accuracy in reading emotion in another person, you have to also take the context into account."

Incidentally, the theory that emotional expressions evolved for specific functions is normally attributed to Charles Darwin, in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. But Darwin didn't write that emotional expressions are functional. "If you're going to cite Darwin as evidence that you're right, you'd better cite him correctly," Barrett says. Darwin thought that emotional expressions – smiles, frowns, and so on –were akin to the vestigial tailbone – and occurred even though they are of no use.

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12 comments

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Tausch
3 / 5 (4) Dec 13, 2011
Kudos. Unfortunately, this researcher is correct!
In the womb you smile. It is up to Barrett's opponents to explained this.
Barrett's opponents suggest hardwiring between emotions and facial expressions during gestation!?!?!

Proponents of micro-expression still owe the scientific community an explanation to the biological origin, source, and purpose of micro-expression.
This borders on lunacy when researchers assert an external biological function that is imperceptible to any of the senses.
Squirrel
1 / 5 (1) Dec 13, 2011
In the womb some smile, others do not--may be preparation variable expressed for later external functional use. Microexpressions could just be leak the lips that move when people read "silently"--no one reads silently as their is always EMG leakage inspite of its being muffled to laryngeal and other vocal track muscles. In some this EMG produces small movements. Microexpressions might be no different.

What it interesting and not raised by the authors is that if emotional expression is so varied might not the mental distress of many with psychiatric conditions link to such differences.
Dug
5 / 5 (1) Dec 13, 2011
"This debate isn't purely academic." Actually, it would be more accurate to say it isn't purely factual and debating opinions isn't very academic.
Tausch
1 / 5 (3) Dec 13, 2011
"may be", "could just be", "might be". Which the micro-expression proponents need to answer and/or research.

All fetuses move their facial muscles during gestation.
All neuronal associations arising from experience after birth will determined what facial movements are associated with what experience causes emotion. Crying is stressful. Later on the expressions of joy, anger, sadness can have crying as a facial expression for the 'stress' experienced.

...if emotional expression is so varied might not the mental distress of many with psychiatric conditions link to such differences. - Squirrel


Almost correct and so close:
...if emotional expression is so varied might not the mental distress of many with psychiatric conditions link to NO such differences.
freethinking
1 / 5 (2) Dec 13, 2011
I've heard that the best readers and best hiders of emotions are those that have had some sort of abuse growing up. The theory is that the abused needs to read the abuser, while hiding what they are feeling.
Tausch
1 / 5 (1) Dec 13, 2011
This almost sounds gender specific - although both - abused and abuser require opposite treatment.
dweeb
1 / 5 (1) Dec 13, 2011
words w/friends
information theory & automata
emotions and goals , denotation and connotation

sad , frown , cry , pain
happy , smile , laugh , pleasure
Tausch
not rated yet Dec 14, 2011
Ojorf
Post some words of descending opinion too.
Tausch
1 / 5 (1) Dec 14, 2011
BobKob
Post words that led to the ratings. Thks.
rubberman
not rated yet Dec 14, 2011
I think they tried for too general of a display of emotion. A smile or frown can mean many things. If someone is made to be "uncomfortable", like forcing them to lie on a flat bed with random protrusions that can be mechanically withdrawn, so they instantly go from a state of discomfort to a state of comfort, the bodily and facial reaction is always similar, regardless of the individual. Same with instantaneous facial recognition (waiting for a ride at the airport lets say), if your not happy to be there and you spot your ride, you can't help but smile.
Having said all that, people have learned to only convey the emotions they wish to via facial expression. If you couldn't control this, there would be alot more hand to hand combat...for instance, whenever I have to meet with my ex and her mother is there....
gwrede
1 / 5 (1) Dec 14, 2011
Oh, boy. This time the researchers and the author are as clueless as the commentators.
Tausch
Dec 15, 2011
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