The following is a research paper that I wrote this year (2001) for my honors intro to psychology class here at the University of Texas; I thought it was informative enought to put up on E2 (I made a 100% on it.)
Facial Expressions: The Great Communicators of Emotion
Have you ever noticed when you’re talking to a friend that you almost never look directly at their face and yet when you’re watching a speech being given, or in a classroom listening to your professor that’s exactly what you do? Or the way that you can always tell when two people are in love by the way the stare into each other’s eyes? All of these things are due to the incredible power of the face to express emotion, and the social rules that govern emotional expression Facial expressions are universal to all humans and communicate emotions faster, and often more informatively than anything else. For this reason, they are of interest to psychologists, who have made a lot of progress in understanding how they are made, perceived, controlled, and why.
Faces can carry many messages and meanings. Through such signals as bone structure, skin , hair, and eye color, and number of wrinkles, someone’s ancestry, age, and sex can be determined, among other things. However rapid facial signals, or facial expressions, are the subject of this paper, and they are usually caused by emotions.
Not only do facial expressions show emotion, but as the term "rapid signal" implies, they do it very quickly, immediately after the emotion is felt. Because of this fact, they are one of, if not the, best indicator of emotion that the body has. Tone of voice and body posture can show emotion, but they typically show how a person is coping with an emotion, rather than the feeling itself.
When facial expressions occur, they are made with three distinct areas of the face: the (1) brow and forehead, the (2) eyes, eyelids, and the root of the nose, and the (3) lower face (cheeks, mouth, nose, chin). Each of these areas move independently of the others, but work together to form expressions. I will not discuss the morphology of facial expressions very much in this paper, focusing instead on how they are used and perceived. Suffice it to say that each particular emotion corresponds to a particular set of movements by the muscles in the face.
Preliminary Research in the Field of Facial Expression
There was very little research in the field until the 1960’s because "early research [incorrectly] suggested that the face did not provide accurate information about emotion and psychology, and for the most part, trusted these findings. (Ekman & Rosenburg, 1997, p. 9)" Original work by Landis (1924) on an observer’s reactions to emotionally evocative photographs was flawed. Also the "zeitgeist of behaviorism and its blatant rejection of the study of ‘unobservables’ such as emotion discouraged researchers from pursuing this path. (Ekman & Rosenburg, 1997, p. 9)" Studying even slightly non-observable subjects was a potentially career-ending decision.
The research of Paul Ekman, probably the most significant researcher in the field, beginning in 1969, along with Friesan and Izard, legitimized the study of the face. Ekman’s three early books, Emotion in the Human Face, Darwin and Facial Expression, and Unmasking the Face helped make it clear to psychologists everywhere that "measurement of facial expression may indeed be a fruitful research enterprise. (Ekman & Rosenburg, 1997, p. 10)
Ekman and his colleagues then developed a "vocabulary of emotion" to categorize all the distinct emotions that the face could express.(Ekman & Friesen, 1975, p.22) They did this by performing experiments in which the researchers asked the subjects about what emotions they saw in a collection of pictures and recording the most common answers. Theses simplified into six distinct emotions: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, and disgust.
Next they needed to empirically determine what expressions the human face can form, and which expressions went with which emotions. To this end, Ekman and his fellow psychologist developed the "facial atlas:" a comprehensive collection of all the various expressions the face can make, compiling information about the various facial muscles, the 6 emotions in the facial vocabulary, and observational evidence linking the two. To check the validity of the atlas, they performed a series of experiments in which the atlas correctly determined the emotion induced in a subject through various stimuli (such as watching a film), verified by other reliable biological cues of those emotions. Then the atlas was used to measure several emotion-based expressions and it correctly predicted which emotion people would recognize in them, thereby achieving social as well as experimental validity. (Ekman & Friesen, 1975, p. 27)
The Facial Action Coding System (FACS) and the narrower Emotion FACS (EMFACS) are the latest incarnations of the facial atlas. The FACS was developed by Ekman and Friesen in 1978, and it catalogs every muscle group and possible movement in the face, even those which are not manipulated by emotion. It is less invasive than other methods of measuring facial expression, such as electromyography, which requires putting electrodes on a subjects face, and makes the experimental environment very artificial. (Ekman & Rosenburg, 1997, p. 12)
Expression Recognition and Perception
People are not born with the knowledge of which facial expressions correspond to which emotions, nor are you expressly taught it by someone else. You have to pick it up through observational learning (or psychological research). Because of this dependence on observation, there are many barriers to learning the skill required to pick out the facial expressions caused directly by emotions, and correctly interpret which emotions caused them.
First, one must be actively looking at the face. This seems obvious, but, as pointed out earlier, it is rarely ever done in conversation. People might look at each other’s faces from time to time to see if the other person looks like they understand, or if they want to say something, but usually not to check for signs of emotion. This is due to cultural rules of etiquette, and a possible reluctance to take responsibility for the other person’s emotions; if you don’t know a person is feeling sad, you’re not obliged to comfort them. (Ekman & Friesen, 1975, p. 16)
Even if you are trying to look at someone’s face, it is easy to miss emotion-induced expressions, because they typically do not last very long at all. It is easy to miss these "micro-expressions" because of all the other, longer lasting, but less reflexive information that people give out through body stance, tone of voice, and what the person is actually saying. (Ekman & Friesen, 1975, p. 18)
Universality and Cultural Contexts
Facial expressions are universal; that is, people of all different backgrounds, cultures, and personalities show the same expressions on their face for the same emotions. We can see that they are universal across time too, through looking at ancient symbolic masks. "Compared with non-threatening masks, those known to have a threatening social function in the primitive culture they were from contain more diagonal and angular faces … Non-threatening masks had more curvilinear features.(Zebrowitz, 1997, p. 27)" The same, easily recognizable, facial expressions can be seen by people today, in entirely different social contexts.
In order to empirically prove to the psychological community the cultural uniformity of facial expressions, researchers performed a number of experiments. The first showed stress films (like films of surgery) to both American and Japanese people and recorded their expressions, which were shown to be very similar when the subjects did not know they were being observed. In the second experiment, people from several different cultures around the world were shown expressive pictures and asked to identify emotion, and the large majority of their answers agreed with each other. (Ekman & Friesen, 1975, p. 24)
In order to make sure the results of the previous experiments were not do to exposure to the same mass media, isolated New Guinea natives were told an emotional story such as "your friend’s mother has died" and asked to choose the one out of three pictures of facial expressions that matched the emotion of the story. Almost all of the time, they chose the same picture as an average American would. Then these same natives were then told an emotional story and asked to display the emotion they felt to a camera. The faces they made were clearly very similar to those made by the American and Japanese people in the first experiment. These studies proved that the correlation between particular emotions and particular facial expressions are innate and universal in all members of the human race. (Ekman & Friesen, 1975, p. 26)
Although the facial expressions correspond to the same emotions in people all over the world, different things cause different emotions in each individual. These differences are especially significant across cultures, as the things that surprise, disgust, and anger people change. Display rules also play a role in altering how facial expressions are interpreted across cultures. These are certain unspoken laws that regulate what kinds of emotions you should show in each culture. For instance, in America many young boys are taught not to show fear or cry. Instead when they feel afraid or sad, they control the expression of the emotion. Cultural display rules like this exist for every culture, although few people realize the rules for their own native culture.
Presupposition and stereotypes are significant in the perception of facial expressions as well. Algoe, Buswell, and DeLamater conducted a study to "determine whether variations in gender and job status (which they viewed as contextual cues) influence the interpretation of facial expression." (2000, p. 187) They read 242 undergraduate college students a vignette describing a boss getting mad at an employee, and then showed them a picture of someone (either named "John" or "Susan" depending on gender) expressing an emotion, and asked them to identify the emotion being expressed. They found that the observes tended to attribute more "masculine" emotions, such as anger, to pictures of men, and more "feminine" emotions, such as fear, to pictures of women. This demonstrated that the gender of the person displaying the expression influenced the perception of emotion in the observer. (p. 204) So although the expressions and emotions themselves are universal, the interpretation of them is much more subjective.
Deception and Control
True emotion-induced facial expression is involuntary. Although you can purposefully choose to act surprised, the look on your face when you are actually surprised is an automatic reflex to external stimulus. Fortunately, this is common knowledge, and people do not generally expect every facial expression to either emotionally induced or artificial, but rather a mix of the two.
There are three ways that facial expressions can be controlled. Qualification is expanding on an existing emotion-based expression, changing its meaning, such as smiling to qualify an angry expression, letting someone you’re angry at know you aren’t too mad, and you aren’t going to take things too far. Modulation is changing the intensity of an emotion-based expression, such as reducing an expression of fear to one of apprehension. Lastly, Falsification is further divided into three subgroups: simulating (showing an expression usually associated with an emotion, without actually feeling it), neutralizing (showing no expression when one is felt), and masking (when a genuine emotion is covered up with an artificial one, a generally easier task than simulation). The face is harder to control than other methods of expression, such as voice, because you have no feedback from it, unless you look in a mirror. (Ekman & Friesen, 1975, p. 140-142)
Facial expressions can be controlled for communicative reasons. For instance, there are other forms of display rules than just the cultural ones discussed earlier. There are also vocational display rules, such as a diplomat who has to conceal his own emotions in the interests of the nation he represents, or the more obvious case of the actor, assuming the role of her character. People also sometimes make mock expressions to punctuate conversation or otherwise communicate, without actually feeling the emotion they are showing. For instance a girl might pout when she’s not really upset, just flirting.
People also sometimes control their facial expressions to deceive, for whatever personal reason. Deceitful expressions are the equivalent of lying with words. Different people have varying levels of skill with this: some people are "open books" while others are masters of hiding their true emotions. Although acknowledgment of cultural display rules and a fear of confronting emotional situations generally motivate people to let each other get away with it, facial deceit can be detected.
Emotion-induced expressions are involuntary and natural, so to try to modulate or falsify them requires working against the body’s natural tendencies. In essence, the truth wants to come out. When it does, it appears in the form of a true emotion leaking out, or a general sense of artificiality that doesn’t indicate which emotion is being covered up, only that there is deception going on. A few things that bring about that sense of artificiality are timing being off, an expression lasting too long or too short, or fluctuations in the face that are inappropriate for the emotion. (Ekman & Friesen, 1975, p. 145)
The actual act of lying with words can have some impact on facial expressions as well, through the related emotions of fear and guilt. Ekman, O’Sullivan and Frank did a study to determine whether certain occupational groups had a better chance at detecting deceitful facial expressions. They had various law-enforcement groups and psychologists with different levels of interest and expertise in the field of facial expression try to identify whether someone in a particular video was acting out an expression or really feeling it. They concluded that "it is possible for some people to make highly accurate judgments about lying and truthfulness without any special aids" but that "it is unlikely that judging deception from demeanor will ever be sufficiently accurate to be admissible in the courtroom.(Ekman, O’Sullivan, & Frank, 1999, p. 265)" The study demonstrates the extreme difficulty in determining the true emotions of someone if they are trying to control their facial expressions.
The study of facial expressions is not only fascinating, but it has practical uses as well. A good understanding of the information hinted at in this limited paper could allow people to understand the feelings of others better, and help them in communicating their own. A more detailed knowledge of the actual expressions themselves, and the signs of facial deceit could be useful for therapists who need to know how a patient is really feel. Actors could use the information to help them match the emotions of their character. In conclusion, facial expressions remain windows to the emotions that are universal across cultures, and have a great deal more relevance in every day life than most people give them credit for.
Ekman, P. & Friesen, W.V. (1975) Unmasking the Face. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
Ekman, P & Rosenberg, E.L. (1997) What the Face Reveals: Basic and Applied Studies of Spontaneous Expression Using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). New York: Oxford University Press.
Zebrowitz, L.A. (1997) Reading Faces: Window to the Soul?. Boulder: Westview Press.
Ekman, P. & O’Sullivan, M. & Frank, M.G. (1999). A few can catch a liar. Psychological Science, 10, 263-266.
Algoe, S.B. & Buswell, B.N. & DeLamater, J.D. (2000). Gender and job status as contextual cues for the interpretation of facial expression of emotion. Sex Roles, 42, 183-208.