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Facial Expressions: Part 2

Facial Expressions: Part 2

In the previous article we explored the work of the well-known psychologist Ekman on the origin of facial expressions. As a quick reminder, he was able to show through multicultural studies, that in cultures across the entire world, the same facial expressions were used and understood. Ekman believed that this was good evidence that facial expressions have a genetic basis and that how we are socialised has very little to do with the six primary facial expressions. This article will focus on a change that Ekman later made to his theory which allowed for some social input into the expression of emotion, and explain his reasoning for this change.

Ekman named this new part of his theory ‘Display Rules’. These were additional rules regarding how the emotions that we are all genetically predisposed to can function. Gallois explained that these rules exist because emotional expression exists primarily as a form of communication to a given audience. This means that the expected reaction to a certain expression will have an effect on whether it is used. In short, our use of expressions will be governed by display rules that we have learnt from previous social contact.

It has been demonstrated that several moments before a surprising comment is uttered we are prepared to react to it, perhaps because from previous experience we have learnt for signals that we are about to be surprised. An example of this might be how when watching a horror film you can tell that something scary is about to happen because it’s gone very quiet and nothing has happened for a long time. At this point we prepare ourselves to act scared and surprised because this is what we have learnt. If someone has never seen a horror film before they may be unaware of the signs the movie producer has left for the audience and so they will be less able to control their surprise because they have less advanced warning.

This ability to prepare for an emotion may be useful because it allows us to hide our true emotions since they are socially unacceptable. For example, when watching a sad video at school it may be socially unacceptable to cry, while it would be perfectly acceptable at a funeral. The reason for some cultural variation in the use of emotions is that these display rules develop differently based on what we learn is appropriate as we are growing up. In Mediterranean cultures, the expression of emotion is more strongly encouraged, while in Northern European and Asian cultures it is not. Women too are encouraged to show more emotion than men are. Furthermore, when comparing Japanese and American students watching a distressing film, both would display sad expressions alone, but only Americans would in public, since the display rules appear to allow less expression of sad emotions in Japan.

It is for this reason that we are better at decoding the facial expressions of people of our own culture and gender, since they will have more similar display rules to us. These display rules show that while there is a universal physical aspect to emotions that dictates our response, emotions also have a social communication function and display rules are adapted to suit this. Studies show that people are more likely to smile in the presence of others, since if there is no one to communicate one’s happiness to, then smiling is less important. 

At the core of this topic is a simple nature/nurture debate, and both have their part to play. While our emotions and the expressions themselves are dictated by innate natural forces, when we use them and how they are used socially seems to be a much more social phenomenon.


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