Only Four Basic Facial Expressions, Not Six, Say Scientists
Christopher Philip

Is contempt universal?  Are any expressions universal?

Is contempt universal? Are any expressions universal?

Most researchers agree that the following six emotions first outlined by Paul Ekman are recognized by all cultures: happiness or enjoyment, distress or sadness, anger, disgust, surprise and fear. The notable exception was the general confusion surrounding fear and surprise which tend to activate similar muscles in the face. This has been measured and tested by comparing the modern West to remote isolated cultures.

However, research from the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology published in the journal Current Biology by scientists at the University of Glasgow is challenging that view. This new research suggests that there are in fact only four basic emotional facial expressions. This new research might help explain why some cultures find it difficult to assess and distinguish between the various facial expressions.

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The research lead by Dr Rachael Jack claims that while the facial expressions of happiness and sadness are clearly distinct, fear and surprise share a common signal. They both employ wide-open-eyes which arise early in the expression. Similarly, anger and disgust both use the wrinkled nose.

“Our results are consistent with evolutionary predictions,” said Jack, “where signals are designed by both biological and social evolutionary pressures to optimize their function. First, early danger signals confer the best advantages to others by enabling the fastest escape. Secondly, physiological advantages for the expresser — the wrinkled nose prevents inspiration of potentially harmful particles, whereas widened eyes increases intake of visual information useful for escape — are enhanced when the face movements are made early. What our research shows is that not all facial muscles appear simultaneously during facial expressions, but rather develop over.”

To measure the facial expressions, the researchers used a unique “Generative Face Grammar” software platform developed by Professor Philippe Schyns, Dr Oliver Garrod and Dr Hui Yu at the University of Glasgow. It was the first such experiment that permitted facial expressions to be measured over time. The Generative Face Grammar software uses cameras to assess three dimensional images of the face aimed at individuals specially trained to be able to activate the total set of 42 facial muscles independently.

From their observations, they found the signals of fear/surprise and anger/disgust were confused at the early stages. They only became clear later as other muscles of the face contracted. “Our research questions the notion that human emotion communication comprises six basic, psychologically irreducible categories. Instead we suggest there are four basic expressions of emotion.”

“We show that ‘basic’ facial expression signals are perceptually segmented across time and follow an evolving hierarchy of signals over time — from the biologically-rooted basic signals to more complex socially-specific signals. Over time, and as humans migrated across the globe, socioecological diversity probably further specialized once-common facial expressions, altering the number, variety and form of signals across cultures.”

The researchers plan to use the software to test facial expressions in different cultures including East Asian populations since they tend to evaluate facial expressions differently than those in the West. In the East, the eyes tend to be used more prominently and in the West, the mouth plays a bigger role.

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Rachael E. Jack, Oliver G.B. Garrod, Philippe G. Schyns. Dynamic Facial Expressions of Emotion Transmit an Evolving Hierarchy of Signals over Time. Current Biology, 2014; 24 (2): 187.

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