universality of emotions

A Brief Intellectual History of the Universality of Emotional Expressions

History of emotions research

universality of emotions

Animal Expressions and Emotions

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals¬†is the least known, and in my opinion, the most accessible of all of Darwin’s books. The topic — the expression of the emotions in humans and animals – is of interest to everyone. We are immediately drawn to consider why animals were included. Do they have emotions? Are there expressions like those of humans? One example of Darwin’s legacy is the work of Franz de Waal, which boldly describes the complex emotions and social relationships of nonhuman primates. Another example is our method for measuring facial movement in humans: FACS, short for the facial action coding system, published by myself and Wallace Friesen in the 1970s and since adapted into various animal editions. I believe Darwin would be very pleased that ChimpFACS and other animal editions allows, for the first time, precise comparisons of human and nonhuman expressions.

Darwin and Dogma

Despite the groundbreaking and influential nature of Darwin’s Expression, for a number of reasons it was largely ignored for many years. One of the main reasons was that Darwin put forth evidence that expressions are innate, that these signs of our emotions are the product of our evolution and are therefore part of our biology. This was completely incompatible with the reigning dogmas within psychology, sociology, and anthropology until the late 20th century.

Focus on Behaviorism

Watson, the founder of behaviorism, rejected the notion that inheritance played any part in explaining our social behavior. He claimed that we need only consider what is learned to understand man. Learning, he said, is the only proper focus for psychology. The popularity of Watson’s view may reflect the fact that it was harmonious with the democratic Zeitgest – the hope that all men could be equal if their environments were equally benevolent.

Relativism and Universality

Anthropology had its own parallel to behaviorism: an insistence that culture completely determines social life, with amazing accounts of how even the most basic elements of how we mate, procreate, and bring up our children are totally constructed by culture and differ from one place to another. Relativism not universality was, and to a large extent still is, central to much of anthropology. A number of anthropologists claimed there was no innate contribution to expression, no constants across cultures in any aspect of human facial expression.

Emotions and Evolution

Today most scientists reject such absolute relativism: nature and nurture both play a role in all human behavior. Emotions are both the product of our evolution, particularly their physiology and expression, and of what we have learned, especially our attempts to manage our emotions, our attitudes about our emotions and our representations of them verbally. There are still some who disagree – cultural relativists or social constructionists – but they no longer dominate scientific thinking. The intellectual climate has changed; it is now much more hospitable to Darwin’s Expression.

Nature and Nurture

Many, nearly simultaneous, factors combined to effect this change. It came about partly as a result of strong evidence, published in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that expression do show universality. There was also an increasing disillusionment with the narrow confines of behaviorism and the emergence of cognitive science in psychology, which re-established the legitimacy of studying thoughts and ideas. If it was respectable to study scientifically phenomena which cannot be directly observed, it was not much of a further step for the study of emotions to become once again respectable. The rapid growth of behavioral genetics, and findings from studies of temperament, helped to bring nature back as a partner in the enterprise. The Human Genome Project, and the continual unfolding of how many individual differences have a genetic basis, have changed the intellectual and scientific climate. Nurture is not being thrown out, but is no longer the only determinant of human behavior. It is time to learn from Darwin about the most intimate and private part of our lives – our emotions and their public display, our expressions.

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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