Human Facial Expressions and Emotions: Are They Universal?

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Human Facial Expressions and Emotions: Are they Universal?

To accept that the implications of human emotions are universal is indeed very extensive. It speaks to an issue that is deeply entrenched in human nature and it is by no means a trivial question. Much research has been conducted in this field of emotions through the analysis of facial expressions, categorizing evidence into two primary categories: those in favor of the universality of emotions, known as the Universality thesis, or those in favor of cultural influence on emotions. While it has been largely accepted that there is a basic universal language in the field, the bulk of the debate centers on where exactly factors controlling expression of facial expressions lie on this spectrum. There is undeniably overwhelming evidence in support of the universality thesis with both qualitative (judgment studies) and quantitative (muscle unit measurements and brain mapping techniques) data; however, one could not overlook the behavioral and anatomical evidence in favor of culture-specific expressions. Therefore, universal emotions may serve as a very fundamental framework among all humans; yet, it is cultural differences that fine-tune this structure into the emotions each individual expresses. Introduction to Universality Thesis: The Darwinian Hypothesis Principles for the Expression of Emotions

The Work of Charles Darwin. Many of the ideas that Darwin formulated in his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals have led to this field of research. On the book’s most basic level, he defended that emotion expressions are evolved and adaptive (Hess & Thibault, 2009). However, Darwin also posits three crucial principles from which many of the subsequent fundamental questions and debate over emotions and their purpose stem. The Principle of Serviceable Habits. As Hess and Thibault (2009) note, this first principle takes a Lamarckian view of the inheritance of emotions genetically through the force of habits. Darwin explicitly underscores the concept and force of habit. It also speaks very much to the functionality of emotions and their expressions, although most of them are vestigial. However, these traits could still be observed in animals because the civilization of humans would suppress such instinctual tendencies. A common example is that of rage and aggression as a “playful sneer” or “ferocious snarl” (Darwin, 1872) reveals animal descent. The Principle of Antithesis. In a reversal of the first principle, the second principle asserts that some expressions are so directly opposite to nature that the only means is that of expressive communication (Darwin 1872). This makes the expression almost analogous to the voice for the purpose of intercommunication. It is worth noting, however, the Darwin extends this principle to not only states, but to traits as well (Hess & Thibault, 2009). For instance, Darwin (1872) postulates that the enigmatic action of a gaping mouth could indicate a feebleness of character. Such actions eventually become ingrained through habit. The Principle of the Direct Action of the Excited Nervous System on the Body. This final principle that Darwin outlines could be considered the direct product of the nervous system. Therefore, some expressions occur to balance excess emotions. For instance, consider the absurd nature of laughter (Hess & Thibault, 2009). Heckler (1873) proposed that laughter could in fact be a protective reflex that compromises the excess of the circulatory and respiratory systems through the irritation of vasomotor nerves. The work of Darwin and universality thesis will later by revived in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the judgments studies of Paul Ekman.

Evidence in Support of Universality
Evidence derived from Judgment Studies
Introduction. The universality thesis is most contingent upon judgment data, evidence of observers seeing the same emotions in all faces...
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