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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.
Darwin’s Claims of Universality
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.
Interpreting Facial Expressions
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.
Spontaneous 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.
The Physiology of Emotional Expressions
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 than Africans. Those findings and the conclusion that all human beings have a shared set of facial expressions remains unchallenged.
Are there universal facial expressions?