Facial Expression and Recognition of Emotions


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Each of seven photographs includes a person demonstrating a different facial expression: happiness, surprise, sadness, fright, disgust, contempt, and anger.
Figure 1. The seven universal facial expressions of emotion are shown. (credit: modification of work by Cory Zanker)

Facial Expression and Recognition of Emotions (OpenStax Psychology 2e)

Culture can impact the way in which people display emotion. A cultural display rule is one of a collection of culturally specific standards that govern the types and frequencies of displays of emotions that are acceptable (Malatesta & Haviland, 1982). Therefore, people from varying cultural backgrounds can have very different cultural display rules of emotion. For example, research has shown that individuals from the United States express negative emotions like fear, anger, and disgust both alone and in the presence of others, while Japanese individuals only do so while alone (Matsumoto, 1990). Furthermore, individuals from cultures that tend to emphasize social cohesion are more likely to engage in suppression of emotional reaction so they can evaluate which response is most appropriate in a given context (Matsumoto, Yoo, & Nakagawa, 2008).

Other distinct cultural characteristics might be involved in emotionality. For instance, there may be gender differences involved in emotional processing. While research into gender differences in emotional display is equivocal, there is some evidence that men and women may differ in regulation of emotions (McRae, Ochsner, Mauss, Gabrieli, & Gross, 2008).

Paul Ekman (1972) researched a New Guinea man who was living in a preliterate culture using stone implements, and which was isolated and had never seen any outsiders before. Ekman asked the man to show what his facial expression would be if: (1) friends visited, (2) his child had just died, (3) he was about to fight, (4) he stepped on a smelly dead pig. After Ekman’s return from New Guinea, he researched facial expressions for more than four decades. Despite different emotional display rules, our ability to recognize and produce facial expressions of emotion appears to be universal. In fact, even congenitally blind individuals produce the same facial expression of emotions, despite their never having the opportunity to observe these facial displays of emotion in other people. This would seem to suggest that the pattern of activity in facial muscles involved in generating emotional expressions is universal, and indeed, this idea was suggested in the late 19th century in Charles Darwin’s book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872)In fact, there is substantial evidence for seven universal emotions that are each associated with distinct facial expressions. These include: happiness, surprise, sadness, fright, disgust, contempt, and anger (Figure 1) (Ekman & Keltner, 1997).

Of course, emotion is not only displayed through facial expression. We also use the tone of our voices, various behaviors, and body language to communicate information about our emotional states. Body language is the expression of emotion in terms of body position or movement. Research suggests that we are quite sensitive to the emotional information communicated through body language, even if we’re not consciously aware of it (de Gelder, 2006; Tamietto et al., 2009).

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Spielman, R. M., Jenkins, W. J., & Lovett, M. D. (2020). Psychology 2e. OpenStax. Houston, Texas. Accessed for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/psychology-2e


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