Within the past few months, many people have reached out to Humintell and asked us to comment on recent research articles that argue against facial expressions of emotion. After a lot of deliberation, Director Dr. David Matsumoto addresses those issues in the video above.
First and foremost, I’d like to express my deep and sincere respect for all the researchers on both sides of this issue. I encourage healthy debates and more importantly, data about those debates. I think those debates are very healthy for science as well as for scientists, practitioners but most importantly, for the general public.
Dr. Matsumoto has researched and read the vast majority of all the studies that have been cited as evidence for and against the various positions that exist. In the video above, he does not get into technical issues of claims or the nature of the studies or exact data. Though he is happy to get into those discussions, they would require some knowledge of methodology. More importantly, he thinks the message that he wants to impart gets lost really easily if that path is gone down.
Dr. Matsumoto agrees with all the data he has seen from all the researchers. What he doesn’t agree with are all the interpretations or claims made about that data.
I believe data and findings are generated within the limitations of the methodologies that are used to produce that data.
If you look at the papers that argue against facial expressions of emotion, they typically don’t encompass all of the evidence for facial expressions of emotion or their universality including:
- 100s of Judgement studies
- Production studies
- Studies of blind individuals
- Studies of children and infants around the world
- Studies of kin vs non-kin
- Studies of family vs non-family members
- Non-human primate studies
These types of debates have been occurring for a century. Ever since Darwin started this work and published it in 1872, these ideas have been debated hotly both in the lay public and academic discourse. Within the academic discourse, the start of these debates came from early anthropologists like Margaret Mead and Ray Birdwhistell. Those debates carried on to the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The original universality studies were conducted in the 60s and 70s. And even from the 80s these same debates and arguments have been occurring.
To tell you the truth, the nature of the arguments made are essentially the same today as they were 30 or 40 years ago when I started being involved with them directly myself.
A lot of the thinking that’s dominated this field and much of academia is what Dr. Matsumoto calls “logical determinism”. Logical determinism is a way of thinking that things are mutually exclusive; they’re either or, it’s this way or that way. They are either or dichotomies. Dr. Matsumoto thinks this is true for a lot of academic debates as well as much every day thinking.
What are the limitations of logical determinism?
- Leads easily to confirmation bias. This confirmation bias exists in the way academics think about their phenomenon. It also biases the way they create studies and the way they, Dr. Matsumoto included, interpret data.
- Leads to what might call straw person arguments. One straw person argument heard all the time is “facial expressions of emotion are the only things that faces do” or that “they’re always reflective of an emotional state”.
The thought that facial expressions are always reliable indicators of emotion is a straw person argument because no one who studies facial expressions of emotion today seriously believes that.
There’s actually a recent survey of all of the most contemporary emotion researchers in the field that was published in 2016. A survey went out to about 250 of those researchers around the world and 88% of them believed there was compelling evidence for universals in any aspect of emotion. The vast majority of researchers in this field believe the existence of facial expressions of emotion but they don’t believe these extreme straw person arguments and no one does.
Faces do many, many things.
One very special thing that faces do is create facial expressions of emotion. We know that our faces can create thousands of behaviors.
We also know that our facial behavior has many other different functions such as:
- Signal cognition and cognitive processes
- Signal specific verbal words or phrases
- Speech articulation
- Signals of physical exertion or physical effort
- Idiosyncratic things
Because of these multiple functions of facial expressions, it makes perfect sense that some experiments will find (under some conditions), that facial behaviors are not necessarily a signal of an emotion. There’s no question about that.
But what is also true is that when a true and strong emotional reaction is spontaneously triggered, and the closer that reaction is to something that is really meaningful in our lives, that will produce the impulse to create a facial expression of emotion in people all around the world.
The link between a spontaneous, strong, intense, meaningful emotional reaction and a corresponding facial expression has never been refuted by any study.
There have been many other studies about other aspects of the face, especially studies where people are judging faces. But no study that has actually elicited a meaningful, intense, emotional reaction *spontaneously* has shown otherwise. In addition, there are a lot of studies that have shown that the face does many, many other things sometimes with the same muscles we use for emotion signaling.
It is necessary to understand the entirety of the data in terms of the complexity of the face.
What is it about the question of universality or not that gets people so heated?
Perhaps the question about universality is somehow related to how we see ourselves and humankind; whether we see humans as fundamentally similar or somehow different. It is a deep, philosophical question with no clear answers.
Although he doesn’t agree with all the interpretations that are made of the data, Dr. Matsumoto believes that we can find ways to understand the totality of the data without negating one side or the other.