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The Expression of Emotion

Are Our Emotional Expressions Universal?

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While the basic emotions tend to be universal, researchers have found some differences in how people express difference emotions in various cultures.

Image: D. J. Jones

Emotions play an important role in our daily lives. Each and every day we spend a tremendous amount of time

  • witnessing the emotions of others,
  • interpreting what these signals might mean,
  • determining how to respond,
  • and dealing with our own complex emotional experiences.

Emotions are also an important topic in psychology and researchers have devoted a great deal of energy toward understanding things such as the purpose of emotions and theories about how and why emotions occur. Researchers have also learned a great deal about the actual expression of emotion.

We express our emotions in a number of different ways including both verbal communication and through nonverbal communication. Body language such as a slouched posture or crossed arms can be used to send different emotional signals. One of the most important ways that we express emotion, however, is through facial expressions.

Are Emotional Expressions Universal?

You have probably heard that body language signals and gestures sometimes have different meanings in different cultures, but does the same idea apply to facial expressions as well? Do people in other countries and cultures express emotions in the same way?

In his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, famed naturalist Charles Darwin argued that human expressions of emotion were both innate and universal across cultures. Researcher and emotion expert Paul Eckman has found that, for the most part, the facial expressions used to convey the basic emotions tend to be the same across cultures.

While he has found that the human face is capable of creating an astonishing variety of expressions (more than 7,000!), there are six key basic emotions:

  1. Happiness
  2. Surprise
  3. Sadness
  4. Anger
  5. Disgust
  6. Fear

Researchers have shown photographs of people expressing these emotions to individuals from different cultures, and people from all over the world have been able to identify the basic emotions behind these expressions. Eckman believes that not only are these basic emotions probably innate; they are most likely hard-wired in the brain.

Variations In Emotional Expression

However, there are important cultural differences in how we express emotions. Display rules are the differences in how we manage our facial expressions according to social and cultural expectations. In one classic experiment, researchers watched Japanese and American participants as they viewed grisly images and videos of things such as amputations and surgeries. People from both backgrounds showed similar facial expressions, grimacing and conveying disgust at the gory images.

When a scientist was present in the room as the participants viewed these scenes, however, the Japanese participants masked their feelings and kept neutral facial expressions. Why would the presence of the scientist change how these viewers responded? In Japanese culture it is considered offensive to reveal negative emotions in the presence of an authority figure. By masking their expressions, the Japanese viewers were adhering to the display rules of their culture.

The ability to express and interpret emotions plays an essential part of our daily lives. While many expressions of emotion are innate (and likely hard-wired in the brain), there are many other factors that influence how we reveal our inner feelings. Social pressures, cultural influences, and past experience can all help shape the expression of emotion.

Learn more about the psychology of emotion:

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