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“The evidence that runs contrary to the view that certain emotions are biologically basic …”


In a remarkable departure from the usual “idiot child of evolutionary biology” fare provided by evolutionary psychology, from Was Darwin Wrong About Emotions? (ScienceDaily Dec. 13, 2011), we learn,

Contrary to what many psychological scientists think, people do not all have the same set of biologically “basic” emotions, and those emotions are not automatically expressed on the faces of those around us, according to the author of a new article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science. This means a recent move to train security workers to recognize “basic” emotions from expressions might be misguided.

Anyone who has managed a large number of people from diverse backgrounds will soon discover this fact. One can just smell the lawsuits to come from security interventions based on crackpot evolution theory.

“What I decided to do in this paper is remind readers of the evidence that runs contrary to the view that certain emotions are biologically basic, so that people scowl only when they’re angry or pout only when they’re sad,” says Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University, the author of the new paper.


But Barrett (along with a minority of other scientists) thinks that expressions are not inborn emotional signals that are automatically expressed on the face. “When do you ever see somebody pout in sadness? When it’s a symbol,” she says. “Like in cartoons or very bad movies.” People pout when they want to look sad, not necessarily when they actually feel sad, she says.

A very good point. Actors are expected to “show” emotions that the audience can interpret. But that’s an elaborate repertoire. One reason most people “can’t act” is that their real display repertoire doesn’t travel well enough, and they can’t master the repertoire.

Some scientists have proposed that emotions regulate your physical response to a situation, but there’s no evidence, for example, that a certain emotion usually produces the same physical changes each time it is experienced, Barrett says. “There’s tremendous variety in what people do and what their bodies and faces do in anger or sadness or in fear,” she says. People do a lot of things when they’re angry. Sometimes they yell; sometimes they smile.

And occasionally they show no apparent reaction but later go postal …

“Textbooks in introductory psychology says that there are about seven, plus or minus two, biologically basic emotions that have a designated expression that can be recognized by everybody in the world, and the evidence I review in this paper just doesn’t support that view,” she says. Instead of stating that all emotions fall into a few categories, and everyone expresses them the same way, Barrett says, psychologists should work on understanding how people vary in expressing their emotions.

Hope she’s got tenure.

But she may escape the Inquisition because, we are told, Darwin’s sacred text “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” does not actually contain the claim attributed to him. Barrett tells us, “Darwin thought that emotional expressions — smiles, frowns, and so on -were akin to the vestigial tailbone — and occurred even though they are of no use.” Which is equally nonsense, but not the same nonsense.

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I don't agree with the evolutionary thing OR the criticism. I insist the facial muscles do indeed represent the same thoughts in all of mankind. There are no emotions in people. There are just thoughts. These different thoughts have simple reactions within us. Our facial muscles simply move for a few operations. We do not have a sad look. We simply when sad have a quick facial muscle circling of the mouth to allow a cry/moan/groan. If one watches ones mouth when groaning/crying etc one will see this circle of the mouth that allows the noise from within us. Our muscles of our face move so quick these facial results happen even without any noise coming. In fact looking sad seldom emits sounds but is always in that ready state. Since our thoughts quickly move our muscles we have trouble keeping a poker face. or we can fake it with ease. Its all about complexity of thoughts using simple physical mechanisms of our bodies. We are made in the image of a God with great thinking ability and then the natural machine of our body shows this thoughtfulness with the odd expressions of our face etc. Its all about thoughts and reading these thoughts by our facial muscles can be deceptive because our thoughts are very involved. its just simple mechanism of how thoughts affect our face. no evolutionary leftovers need be invoked. Robert Byers
Yup natural selection is so powerful that it is indistinguishable from whatever survives to reproduce, survives to reproduce. Science explains it Joe
Difficulty reading facial expressions is a characteristic of Aspergers and autism. Like many other traits, the ability to read other people's body language varies from individual to individual. Petrushka
Here is the conclusion of the paper (my emphasis).
Darwin was surely correct that emotions are, in some sense, the product of natural selection. Evolution is a real phenomenon, and natural selection is a powerful force. The architecture of the human mind was surely sculpted by important evolutionary factors, although perhaps in ways other than those proposed by the basic-emotion view. Its blueprint for evolved mechanisms is intuitive, but strong intuitions do not make something true. Given what we now know about brain evolution, it is highly unlikely that each emotion emerged as its own mechanism, with its own election pressures, along its own evolutionary path (cf. Barrett, Lindquist, Bliss-Moreau, et al., 2007). It is inefficient to evolve a unique solution for every contingency. Instead, it is more likely that evolution produced a generative, multipurpose set of mechanisms that work together in each instance to produce a variety of emotional responses that are exquisitely tailored to each situation (Barrett, 2006b). We do not know which view is correct, or if there is some other, better view to account for the data we have, but studies designed to permit strong inference are required to know just what it is that has evolved to produce the emotions that scientists experience and perceive each and every day. What about some of the details in The EEMA? Does a fearful person look startled—eyes wide, mouth agape, and eyebrows raised? Does an angry person scowl—brows furrowed, eyes glowering, and jaw tightened? Does a sad person frown lips pouting, brows pulled together? Are emotions innately written on the face as a particular arrangement of facial actions for all the world to decode? Based on the available evidence, some scientists would answer yes, while others would say no. Most agree that evidence is, at best, mixed—where people disagree is on how to interpret such mixed evidence. So the real answer is: We just do not know yet. Perhaps as a field we should admit this, and at least for the moment, stop making declarations that would be better phrased as hypotheses.  Ironically, if humans do not make prototypic expressions on a routine basis (even in challenging environmental contexts), then Darwin still might have been right about one thing when it comes to expressions: their lack of signal value. That these expressions appear routinely in North American children’s books, cartoons, and B movies—and in laboratory experiments—might attest to their symbolic, rather than their signal, value. Emotional expressions might be learned and, like other symbol-based communication that is socially  learned, this would be evolutionary significant, immediately functional in individual instances, and adaptive for a species. That perceivers automatically encode the context during emotion perception (Barrett et al., 2011) might reveal something about the more general, evolved mechanisms that humans use to perceive intentions in each other.
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