Chapter 3: Basic Emotion Theory and Social Constructivist Theory

Physiological Patterns

Physiological changes can include changes in the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and/or parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).  In this component, we will also include changes in the brain, such as frontal lobe activation and brain structure activity.


Basic emotions researchers would hypothesize that for the same emotion, people should experience the same changes in physiology.  Because we have so many ways to measure physiological changes, basic emotions researchers look for physiological patterns for each emotion.  They expect that for each emotion, we should see a different pattern of physiological changes.  The basic emotions view that each emotion should correspond to a different physiological pattern is called the autonomic specificity hypothesis (Ekman, 1992; Levenson, 1992).


Research has utilized the Directed Facial Action Task (for more information, see Ekman (2007)) to identify physiological patterns associated with distinct emotions.  In this task, participants contract their facial muscles according to experimenter instructions.  Three common methods are used to provide instructions:

  1. A researcher tells participants to show a certain expression on their face.  So, “please smile” or “please frown” or “please put your bottom lip down.”
  2. A research assistant might arrange the participants facial muscles with their hands
  3. Participants are instructed to hold a pen with their mouth open (to elicit the emotion joy with by smiling) or with their mouth closed (to elicit the emotion sadness by frowning).
During these procedures, the experimenter does not tell the participant which emotion they should be feeling or showing on their face.  Once the participant is displaying the facial expression, researchers measure physiological changes.


This methodology is based on the facial feedback hypothesis, first proposed by Charles Darwin and then William James!  This hypothesis states that the emotions we show on our face cause the emotion we feel.  For example, if we are in a neutral state, and then we show a frown on our face, that frown will actually make us feel sadness!  So, the Directed Facial Action Task assumes that rearranging facial muscles causes participants to feel the discrete emotion shown on the face.


A classic study (Levenson, Ekman, & Friesen, 1990) used the directed facial action task to test the autonomic specificity hypothesis.  In this study, participants displayed six different facial expressions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, happiness, and surprise.  After displaying each facial expression, four physiological measures were taken: heart rate, finger temperature, skin conductance, and muscle activity.  According to the autonomic specificity hypothesis, each of the six facial expressions should cause a unique pattern of physiological changes.


The figure below demonstrates the results. The x-axis shows the six facial expressions, and the y-axis represents the change in physiology from baseline.  Bars of the same color indicates that those emotions did not show significant differences in the corresponding physiological measures.  For instance, for heart rate – anger, fear, and sadness resulted in the same increase in heart rate.  Bars with different colors represent significant differences between the emotions.  For instance, for heart rate – happiness showed a significantly difference change in heart rate from all other emotions except for sadness (as noted).


Figure 15

Physiological Change from Baseline for Six Discrete Emotions


Graphs displaying physiological changes in six emotions -- anger, fear, sadness, disgust, happiness, and surprise -- are displayed. Changes in heart rate, skin conductance, finger temperature, and muscle activity were measured for each of these six emotions. Anger, Fear, Sadness, Disgust, and Happiness all demonstrated increases in heart rate. Every emotion but fear showed and increase in finger temperature. All six emotions resulted in increased skin conductance, while fear, disgust, and happiness demonstrated increases in muscle activity. Anger, sadness, and surprise showed decreases in muscle activity.
Adapted from “Voluntary Facial Action Generates Emotion‐Specific Autonomic Nervous System Activity,” by R.W. Levenson, P. Ekman, and W.V. Friesen, 1990, Psychophysiology, 27(4), p. 369, (Voluntary Facial Action Generates Emotion-Specific Autonomic Nervous System Activity). Copyright 1990 The Society for Psychophysiological Research, Inc.
Below are the physiological patterns that correspond to each emotion, based on whether physiology increases or decreases from baseline.  It is important to note that the pattern for sadness and anger are similar and for disgust and happiness are similar.  Thus, based on these findings, we might have specific physiological patterns for fear and for surprise.  In addition, this study does not indicate whether these physiological patterns are universal.


Physiological Patterns for Each Emotion based on Levenson et al. (1990)

  • Anger: ↑HR, ↑Finger Temp, ↑Skin conductance, ↓Muscle Activity
  • Fear: ↑HR, ↓Finger Temp, ↑Skin conductance, ↑Muscle Activity
  • Sadness: ↑HR, ↑Finger Temp, ↑Skin conductance, ↓Muscle Activity
  • Disgust: ↑HR, ↑Finger Temp, ↑Skin conductance, ↑Muscle Activity
  • Happiness: ↑HR, ↑Finger Temp, ↑Skin conductance, ↑Muscle Activity
  • Surprise: 0 HR, ↑Finger Temp, ↑Skin conductance, ↓Muscle Activity


Some other findings to note:

  • The six emotions did not show differences in muscle activity.
  • Heart rate and finger temperature demonstrated the most differences between emotions.
  • Many of the physiological measures are better at distinguishing among negative emotions than positive emotions.

Finally, keep in mind that Schachter and Singer would state that physiological change only determines our arousal, whereas our cognitive appraisals determine our emotion label.

A later study (Levenson, Ekman, Heider, & Friesen, 1992) looked for universality in physiological patterns by recruiting Minangkabau and American participants. Minangkabau is a local tribe located in the Indonesia province of West Sumatera (called Sumatera Beret by locals).  Similar to the prior study, participants were instructed to make facial expressions associated with the following distinct emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and happiness/joy.  While holding the facial expression, seven measures of physiology were taken – we will only discuss heart rate, finger temperature, and skin conductance.   Results are displayed below.  The top row displays the results for Minangkabau participants, while the bottom row displays results for American participants.


Figure 16

Physiological Change from Baseline for Five Discrete Emotions in US and Minangkabau Participants

Graphs are displayed showing differences in heart rate, finger temperature, and skin conductance across American and Minangkabau participants. The graphs show physiological changes for the emotions anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and happiness. The physiological changes were determined to be universal across cultures, with the greatest differences being in skin-conductance, where Americans displayed a greater increase.
Note. Top row represents Minangkabu participants; bottom row represents Amiercan particpiants. Reproduced from “Emotion and Autonomic Nervous System Activity in the Minangkabau of West Sumatra,” by R.W. Levenson, P. Ekman, K. Heider, and W.V. Friesen, 1992, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62(6), p. 978. Copyright 1992 by the American Psychological Association.


In general, Levenson et al. (1992) concluded that changes in the seven physiological measures were universal for the five emotions.  Two additional findings should be highlighted:

  1. Cross-cultural differences were greatest for skin conductance.  Compared to Minangkabau participants, American participants experienced a larger increase in skin conductance from baseline for anger, fear, sadness, and disgust.  In fact, the Minangkabau didn’t really show a change in skin conductance for any of the emotions.
  2. Findings also showed that the differences in heart rate across the emotions approached significance, with the American participants showing greater increases in heart rate.

In conclusion, this study provides evidence of both universality and cross-cultural differences in physiological changes.  Why do we see these cross-cultural differences?  Well, one explanation might be that Minangkabau truly experience smaller changes in physiology during an emotion episode.  A second methodological reason might be that the facial feedback methodology is less effective for Minangkabau participants – maybe this method didn’t elicit the emotions.  Or maybe the Minangkabau don’t express emotions as intensely on their faces as Americans do.


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