A Force for Good

A note from Dan Goleman:

As I was interviewing the Dalai Lama for my book A FORCE FOR GOOD: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World, Paul Ekman’s work came up repeatedly. The Dalai Lama places great importance, for one, on Paul’s mapping the emotions – a tool that can help people get a better grip on their own. Then there’s the Cultivating Emotional Balance program, which has helped countless teachers and others mange their inner world better.

As Paul makes clear in his book, there is the challenge the Dalai Lama poses to all of us, moving toward the ideal of universal compassion, an attitude that values every person on Earth equally.

In A FORCE FOR GOOD the Dalai Lama suggests we start with an emotional transformation toward greater calm, clarity, and compassion. Then, with this inner rudder, act to improve the world he spells out what our world needs in many spheres – ranging from transparency to dispel corruption in government and business, to a more caring economics, to healing the planet.

And he urges us to act now, in whatever way we can – even if we won’t see the results in our lifetime. We can change the future over the course of this century, if we all act to create this force for good, he urges.

Intriguingly, the arguments the Dalai Lama makes are not based in Buddhism, but rather in science.  He supports his views by drawing on the countless meetings he has had over the decades with world-class scientists – especially Paul’s work.

Paul has spent more than 60 hours in one-on-one conversation with the Dalai Lama. As Paul puts it, they are like brothers.

Of all the many achievements over the course of Paul’s career, this may be the most remarkable. For one, even those close to the Dalai Lama’s inner circle find it difficult to schedule time with that ceaseless world traveler. For another, when Richard Davidson and I were considering which scientists to invite to participate in the Mind and Life meeting on “Destructive Emotions,” we had misgivings about Paul, despite his being at the top of our list.

Our hesitation had to do with Paul’s tough-mindedness as a scientist – we were unsure what his chemistry might be with the Dalai Lama – and we know that beyond first-class science, personal rapport made these meetings work. And, as Paul has said himself, at first during the meeting he had his own doubts. But on the third day there was a personal encounter with Paul and the Dalai Lama – when Paul introduced his daughter Eve, and the Dalai Lama held on to Paul’s hand as they spoke.

There was an almost electrical charge, as Paul has put it – and a subsequent deep change in Paul’s being. Where he had been quick to anger, as Paul describes, after that encounter he didn’t even have an angry thought for about nine months.

While most of us can’t hope for such a drastic inner transformation, any of us can begin the inner journey toward more peace and clarity.  As for myself, I find that meditation has offered a way to renew that state daily.  Cultivating Emotional Balance offers a range of approaches to emotional hygiene. There are countless methods.

But as the Dalai Lama emphasizes, that’s a first step. By also enhancing our own compassion, we become better able to act in ways that will add our energy to the force for good he calls us to create.

Darwin’s Claim of Universals in Facial Expression Not Challenged

March 2014
Paul Ekman, Emeritus Professor, University of California, San Francisco
Dacher Keltner, Professor, University of California, Berkeley

Lisa Feldman-Barrett’s recent contribution (New York Times, February 28, 2014) seeks to undermine the science showing universality in the interpretation of facial expressions. In her eyes, recent evidence “challenges[ing] the theory, attributed to Charles Darwin, that facial movements might be evolved behaviors for expressing emotion.” Such a disagreement really belongs in exchanges of findings and theory in a scientific journal, evaluated by colleagues as evidence accumulates, not the public press. This is not the first time that Feldman-Barrett publicized her views in the press. We didn’t respond then, but feel compelled to do so now so that the public is not misled, and is apprised of the broader, Darwin-inspired science of emotional expression many scientists are working on today.

First, let’s get the science right. Darwin never claimed in his great book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) that all facial expressions are universal, only a specific set of expressions that he had observed and studied. Nearly one-hundred years later Silvan Tomkins helped Ekman and Carrol Izard refine and add to Darwin’s list. In the late sixties, 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. Ekman closed the loophole that observing mass media might account for cross cultural agreement 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 with terms from a list of emotion terms has replicated nearly 200 hundred 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 a list of emotion terms. Haidt and Keltner did 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, and evidence of universality in the expression of embarrassment was also found. The evidence on the judgment of the Darwin-Tomkins facial expressions is robust; so we suppose is Feldman-Barrett’s evidence for the expressions not covered in the Darwin-Tomkins set. She has missed that point, not understanding the difference between unselected and theoretically selected facial expressions.

Feldman-Barrett also ignores two other very powerful data sets that don’t involve showing portrayals of facial expressions to people. Instead what people actually do, spontaneous facial expressions, is measured in numerous, different emotional contexts. Ekman and 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 a hundred 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 are informative about individuals’ feelings, but 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.

Are there universal facial expressions?

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 3.40.08 PMTake our simple test to learn more about facial expressions of emotion.