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Recognizing emotional expressions: Scientific viewpoints

It is said eyes are window of the soul but actually entire face convey emotions and psychological state. Reading facial expressions is considered as a pinnacle of emotional nonverbal communication. Not only emotional signals but also physical states and cognition related clues are conveyed by human face. What is science behind this? Until we don’t understand different theories and factors related with emotions and their expression, it’s really hard to be able to recognize them in different contexts. Neuroscience and social psychology have great impact on our ability to express and also pick emotional clues from somebody’s face (and body).
Basic emotional expressions and a neutral face (in bottom right corner)
Pioneers and their discoveries

Sir Charles Darwin initiated the study of emotional expressions in humans and animals. Through his book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, he gave us a great insight about emotions, their origin and corresponding facial expressions. According to him, emotional facial expressions are ancient remnants of different physiological states that our ancestors might have gone through. Different facial expressions might have benefited them in past so we kept inheriting them through generations. He believed that nonverbal expression of emotions is species specific and not cultural specific. Darwin emphasized greatly on decoding emotions by detecting combination of movements by different (facial) muscles. He also succeeded in creating codes for muscular movements related with different emotional expressions.

In 20th century, Dr. Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen traveled to Papua New Guinea to prove ground breaking theory - Universality of facial expressions related to basic emotions. According to them, there are some specific cross-cultural patterns of facial muscular movements corresponding to Fear, Anger, Disgust, Surprise, Sadness, Happiness and Contempt. They studied and analyzed seemingly primitive population which was totally cut off from modern world. Despite of geographical and cultural isolation, those preliterate people expressed emotions on their faces in almost same way other people do in their own cultures. Moreover, people from other cultures could easily pick emotions on faces of Papua New Guinean people. Indeed, it was an amazing discovery!


Advantageous Expressions and Facial feedback

According to later theorists, expressions related with difference emotions might have offered us three distinct advantages during social interaction: honest communication, deceptive communication and regulation of emotions by through facial feedback.


A) Honest communication of emotion in which facial expressions are result of genuine neurological (or limbic) processes that take place when we’re exposed to sensory stimulus. Honest emotional communication is crucial for survival of any creature and not us. It alters physiological symptoms involuntarily and guides to act or behave according to reflexes that guarantee or multiply opportunities of survival. For example - if our ancestors wouldn’t have run away after watching a tiger approaching them then they would have died or got seriously injured. Even today, if a child doesn’t omit distasteful thing out of its mouth by making disgusted face then probably it would pose harm to child.

B) Deceptive communication is mode in which sender tries to mislead receivers about its true psychological state. It definitive would have given certain advantages to our ancestors throughout evolutionary history. For example - a leader of tribe portraying anger on his face could derogate sub-ordinates and kept them under control without engaging into physicality and wasting energy. We experience that a child can easily draw attention of her mother through fake weeping. However, deceptive emotional expressions can easily be detected because they are not congruent with context.

C) Emotional regulation by controlling facial expressions helps us to alter the severity of emotional perception. On the other hand, conscious movement of facial muscles can induce same emotion in mind of subject (the person who does it) and other people. In one experiment, it has been found that people who controlled painful expressions felt less pain as compared to those who let their faces express pain in natural and uncontrolled way. Social or polite smile is a good example of facial feedback theory because it helps in creating favorable environment for person who initiates it.

It’s highly observable that we tend to express both genuine and fake emotions more intensely in presence of other people as compared to solitary mode. We need receivers or audience for conveying our psychological states because expressing them would be useless and wastage of energy in absence of people. On the other hand, we also try to conceal true emotions or mask them by expressions of more socially acceptable emotion as part of display rules that are either inherited or learned.


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