Chapter 3: Basic Emotion Theory and Social Constructivist Theory

Facial Expressions: Basic Emotions Theory

Basic Emotion or Socially Constructed Emotion?
In this section, we will look at cultural and universal findings for each of the four emotion component changes. As we progress through each section think about which perspective(s) these findings support.

 

Facial Expression Matching

Below are seven individuals displaying seven different emotions. There are also blank spaces below the seven pictures appropriately labeled 1-7. Using the numbers shown for each of the individuals, match an emotion to each of the displayed facial expressions.

 

 

Now, answer the below two questions:

  • Which emotions did you identify first?
  • Which emotion did you identify last?

 

 

The above activity demonstrates a methodological approach used by Paul Ekman and colleagues (Ekman himself is in photo 2). Across many cultures, Ekman has found that participants can match each emotion to the correct facial expression at beyond chance levels. These findings have been replicated in Western and Eastern cultures. To Ekman, these findings demonstrated that basic emotions are universally identified by people of all cultures. In turn, this universal identification of facial expression suggests that all people in all cultures express emotions in the same way.

 

Test Your Knowledge!

Visit this website to test your ability to identify emotional expressions in the Fore tribe!

 

But, it could be possible that people in Western and Eastern cultures learn to show these same facial expressions, especially due to the greater flexibility with traveling in the 20th century and exposure to media. So, Ekman decided to recruit participants from small tribes who have had little exposure to other cultures. He replicated his work with members of the Fore Tribe in Papua New Guinea and the Sadong group from Borneo. In Ekman’s classic study (Ekman, Sorenson, & Friesen, 1969) participants selected one word from a list of six emotions words that matched the facial expression in 30 different still photos. Each photo was displayed one at a time for 20 seconds. The photos displayed posed facial expressions for 1 of 6 emotions: happiness, surprise, fear, anger, disgust-contempt, and sadness. These labels were translated into appropriate languages. Some of the isolated cultures did not have words for disgust or surprise, so these participants were given an example that would elicit the emotion (“looking at something that stinks” for disgust, and “looking at something new” for surprise, p. 87). The individuals in the included photos were Caucasian males and females and included children and adults, actors, non-actors, college students, and individuals diagnosed with mental illnesses. Participants were from the United States, Brazil, Japan, Papua New Guinea, and Borneo. Table 3 displays the percentage of each sample who correctly identified the facial expression in the still photo. A majority of the participants from industrialized countries (USA, Brazil, Japan) correctly identified the facial expressions for all 6 emotions. The highest recognition rates were for happiness and the lowest were for anger and sadness (depending on the country). Participants living in isolated cultures showed high recognition rates for happiness and the majority of participants correctly identified sadness and anger, although these percentages were much smaller compared to the samples from the industrialized countries. Ekman and colleagues suggested the preliterate cultures showed lower recognition rates due to language barriers and a lack of experience completing similar tasks.

Table 3

Recognition Rates for Six Emotions Across Five Cultures

A table showing cross-cultural rates of recognition for a variety of emotion words. 
Emotion Displayed on Face United States Brazil Japan Fore Tribe of New Guinea – Pidgin Language Fore Tribe of New Guinea – Fore Language Sadong Tribe of Borneo
Happy (H) 97 H 97 H 87 H 99 H 82 H 92 H
Fear (F) 88 F 77 F 71 F

26 Su

46 F

31 A

54 F

25 A

40 F

33 Su

Disgust-contempt (D) 82 D 86 D 82 D 29 D

23 A

44 D

30 A

26 Sa

23 H

Anger (A) 69 A

29 D

82 A 63 A

14 D

56 A

22 F

50 A

25 F

64 A
Surprise (Su) 91 Su 82 Su 87 Su 38 Su

30 F

45 F

19 A

36 Su

23 F

Sadness (Sa) 73 Sa 82 Sa 74 Sa 55 Sa

23 A

56 A 52 Sa

Reproduced from “Pan-cultural Elements in Facial Displays of Emotion,” by P. Ekman, E.R. E.R. Sorenson, and W.V. Friesen, 1969, Science, 164(3875), p. 87, (https://doi: 10.1126/science.164.3875.86). Copyright  Note.  For the Fore tribe, some words were in Pidgin language, others in Fore language.

In a later study (Ekman & Friesen, 1971), Fore tribe participants (adults and children) were told a story (see Table 4) and then shown a set of three faces. Participants were then asked to select the face that matched the emotion described in the story.  Table 4 and Table 5 display results from adult and child participants, respectively. The majority of adult participants selected the correct photos for all six emotions. Yet, participants experienced some difficulty discriminating fear among faces showing surprise and happiness and surprise and sadness.  Children seemed to actually do better than adults!  Ekman and Friesen (1971) changed the methodology from prior studies because it was possible that isolated tribes might recognize facial expressions in Caucasians due to exposure to media and film from the Westernized world.  Thus, these results provide support for basic emotion theory. In addition, the overwhelming recognition rates demonstrated by children further supports evolutionary theory – which suggests emotions are biological adaptations and thus should be expressed in young children.

Table 4

Emotion Stories from Ekman and Friesen (1971)

Correct Facial Expression Emotional Story
Happiness His (her) friends have come and he (she) is happy.
Sadness His (her) child (mother) has died, and he (she) feels very sad.
Anger He (she) is angry; or he (she) is angry, about to fight.
Surprise He (she) is just now looking at something new and unexpected.
Disgust He (she) is looking at something he (she) dislikes; or He (she) is looking at something which smells bad.
Fear He (she) is sitting in his (her) house all alone, and there is no one else in the village. There is no knife, axe, or bow and arrow in the house. A widl pig is standing in the door of the house and the man (women)is looking at the pig and is very afraid of it.  The pig has been standing in the doorway for a few minutes, and the person is looking at it very afraid and the pig won’t move away from the door, and he (she) is afraid the pig will bite him (her).

Adapted from “Constants across Cultures in the Face and Emotion,” by P. Ekman, E.R. and W.V. Friesen, 1971, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology17(2), p. 126, (https://doi.org/10.1037/h0030377). Copyright 2016 by the American Psychological Association.

The tables listed below have an emotion that is described in the story listed above them.

Table 5

Results for Adult Participants (Ekman & Friesen, 1971)

Happiness Story

Emotion Shown in the three photographs # Participants % Choosing correct face
Happiness, Surprise, disgust 62 90%
Happiness, Surprise, sadness 57 93%
Happiness, Fear, anger 63 86%
Happiness, Disgust, anger 36 100%

Anger Story

Emotion Shown in the three photographs # Participants % Choosing correct face
Anger, Sadness, surprise 66 82%
Anger, Disgust, surprise 31 87%
Anger, Fear, sadness 31 87%

Sadness Story

Emotion Shown in the three photographs # Participants % Choosing correct face
Anger, fear 64 81%
Anger, surprise 26 81%
Anger, happiness 31 87%
Anger, disgust 35 69%
Disgust, surprise 35 77%

Disgust (smell story) 

Emotion Shown in the three photographs # Participants % Choosing correct face
Disgust, Sadness, surprise 65 77%

Disgust (Dislike story) 

Emotion Shown in three photographs # Participants % Choosing correct face
Disgust, Sadness, surprise 36 89%

Surprise Story

Emotion Shown in three photographs # Participants % Choosing correct face
Surprise, Fear, disgust 31 71%
Surprise, Happiness, anger 31 65%

 
Fear Story

Emotion Shown in the two incorrect photographs # Participants % Choosing correct face
Fear, Anger, disgust 92 64%
Fear, Sadness, disgust 31 87%
Fear, Anger, happiness 35 86%
Fear, Disgust, happiness 26 85%
Fear, Surprise, happiness 65 48%
Fear, Surprise, disgust 31 52%
Fear, Surprise, sadness 57 28%

 

Table 6

Results for Child Participants (Ekman & Friesen, 1971)

Happiness Story

Emotion Shown in the two photographs # Participants % Choosing correct face
Happiness, Surprise 116 87%
Happiness, Sadness 23 96%
Happiness, Anger 25 100%
Happiness, Disgust 25 88%

Anger Story

Emotion Shown in the two photographs # Participants % Choosing correct face
Anger, Sadness 69 90%

Sadness Story

Emotion Shown in two photographs # Participants % Choosing correct face
Sadness, Anger 60 85%
Sadness, Surprise 33 76%
Sadness, Disgust 27 89%
Sadness, Fear 25 76%

Disgust (smell story) 

Emotion Shown in two photographs # Participants % Choosing correct face
Disgust, Sadness 19 95%

Disgust (dislike story) 

Emotion Shown in two photographs # Participants % Choosing correct face
Disgust, Sadness 27 78%

Surprise Story

Emotion Shown in two photographs # Participants % Choosing correct face
Surprise, Happiness 14 100%
Surprise, Disgust 14 100%
Surprise, Fear 19 95% 


Fear Story

Emotion Shown in two photographs # Participants % Choosing correct face
Fear, Sadness 25 92%
Fear, Anger 25 88%
Fear, Disgust 14 100%

Reproduced from “Constants across Cultures in the Face and Emotion,” by P. Ekman, E.R. and W.V. Friesen, 1971, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology17(2), p. 127, (https://doi.org/10.1037/h0030377). Copyright 2016 by the American Psychological Association.

In a third attempt to replicate his basic emotion findings, Ekman and colleagues (1987) recruited participants from 10 cultures: Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Scotland, Mingangkabu in Sumatra, Turkey, and the United States. Similar to prior studies, participants were instructed to match emotion words in their language to facial expressions. In this study, facial expressions were photos of posed expressions, spontaneous expressions, and models contracting certain facial measures (as in the facial feedback hypothesis).  The six emotions were: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise.  The seven emotion word labels were the six aforementioned emotions and contempt.

Participants viewed each of the 6 emotions in three different expressions.  All photos were of Caucasian males and females aged 30 to 40. Participants completed two separate tasks. In the single-emotion judgment task, participants viewed each photo for 10 seconds and checked ONLY ONE of the seven emotion words that represented the facial expression.  In the multiple-emotion judgment task, participants were shown each photo again for 30 seconds.  When viewing each photo, participants indicated how strongly each of the seven emotion labels were present in the facial expression on a 8-point scale (1 = slight; 4 = moderate; 8 = strong).  Table 7 shows the single-judgment emotion findings.  For all countries, even the isolated Minangkabau, a majority of participants selected the correct emotion label.  For the multiple-emotion judgment task, participants in all cultures provided the most intense rating for the emotions predicted in Table 7.  For instance, in the single-judgment task, if participants checked happiness for photo A, in the multiple-judgment task for the same photo A they rated happiness as most intensely present out of all seven emotion labels.

 

Table  7

Single-Judgment Task: Percentage of Correct Labels for Six Emotions Displayed in Photos  (Ekman et al., 1987)

Nation Happiness Surprise Sadness Fear Disgust Anger
Estonia 90 94 86 91 71 67
Germany 93 87 83 86 61 71
Greece 93 91 80 74 77 77
Hong Kong 92 91 91 84 65 73
Italy 97 92 81 82 89 72
Japan 90 94 87 65 60 67
Scotland 98 88 86 86 79 84
Sumatra 69 78 91 70 70 70
Turkey 87 90 76 76 74 79
United States 95 92 92 84 86 81

 

Adapted from “Universals and Cultural Differences in the Judgments of Facial Expressions of Emotion,” by P. Ekman, W.V. Friesen, M.  O’Sullivan, A. Chan, I. Diacoyanni-Tarlatzis, K.  Heider, R. Krause, W.A. LeCompte, T. Pitcairn, P.E. Ricci-Bitti, K.  Scherer, M. Tomita, and A. Tzavaras, 1987, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology53(4), p. 714 (https://doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.53.4.71). Copyright 2016 by the American Psychological Association.

 

Here is a timeline that shows Dr. Ekman’s work.

People have pointed out that although replicated across cultures, other limitations with this methodology exist. For instance, identifying emotions in still photos is much easier than identifying emotions in real life, where non-verbal and verbal behavior is quickly changing. A second problem is that participants can use a process of elimination to increase the chances of identifying the correct answer. For instance, when completing this activity in-class, many students state they identify disgust first and contempt last.

 

 

Ekman and Friesen’s (1978) Facial Action Coding System (FACS)

Ekman and Friesen (1978) developed a method for researchers and criminologists to identify emotions using facial expression changes. In this method, observers are looking for changes in people’s microexpressions, which can be broken down into action units. Microexpressions are changes in facial expressions that last from 1/15 to 1/25 of a second. Microexpressions are nonconscious and cannot be voluntarily controlled by the individual. Ekman believes that microexpressions convey our true emotion, but these microexpressions can quickly be masked by a macroexpression. A macroexpression is a change in facial expressions that lasts between ½ a second and 5 seconds. Macroexpressions tend to parallel the words and tone of voice, but may not necessarily match our true emotion.

To see animated examples of macroexpressions and microexpressions, scroll to the bottom of this website.

When using FACS to identify an individual’s emotional experience, the observer looks for action unit changes in the microexpression. Each action unit maps onto a specific facial muscle. Each identifiable emotion is a combination of several action units.

This website includes animated examples of action unit changes. Scroll to the very bottom of this website to see how action units are combined to categorize emotions. For example, the emotion joy is a combination of two action units – 6 (cheek lip raiser) and 12 (lip corner puller). The emotion disgust includes 3 action unit changes – AU9 + AU15 + AU16. Remember, basic emotion theory posits that changes should be unique to each emotion. So, every emotion should have a unique combination of action unit changes!

 

Video: Yale Expert Interview with Paul Ekman [for basic emotions]

 

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Psychology of Human Emotion. by Michelle Yarwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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