Are there universal expressions of emotion? – Sophie Zadeh
Articles,  Blog

Are there universal expressions of emotion? – Sophie Zadeh

The 40 or so muscles in the human face
can be activated in different combinations to create thousands of expressions. But do these expressions look the same and communicate the same
meaning around the world, regardless of culture? Is one person’s smile another’s grimace? Charles Darwin theorized that emotional
expression was a common human feature. But he was in the minority. Until the mid-20th century, many researchers believed
that the specific ways we show emotion were learned behaviors
that varied across cultures. Personality theorist Silvan Tomkins
was one of the few to insist otherwise. Tomkins claimed that certain affects— emotional states and their associated
facial expressions— were universal. In the 1960s, psychologist Paul Ekman
set about testing this theory by examining hundreds
of hours of film footage of remote tribes isolated
from the modern world. Ekman found the native peoples’
expressions to be not only familiar, but occurring in precisely
the situations he would expect. Conversely, he ran tests with tribes who
had no prior exposure to Western culture. They were able to correctly match photos
of different facial expressions with stories designed
to trigger particular feelings. Over the next few decades, further research has
corroborated Darwin’s idea that some of our most important emotional
expressions are in fact universal. The degrees of expression appropriate
to a given situation can, however, vary greatly across cultures. For instance, researchers
have studied facial expression in people who are born blind, hypothesizing that
if expressions are universal, they would be displayed
in the same way as sighted people. In one study, both blind
and sighted athletes displayed the same expressions of emotion
when winning or losing their matches. Further evidence can be found
in our evolutionary relatives. Comparisons of facial expression
between humans and non-human mammals have found similarities in the structure
and movement of facial muscles. Chimpanzee laughter
looks different from ours, but uses some of the same
muscle movements. Back in the 60s, Ekman identified
six core expressions. Anger is accompanied by lowered
eyebrows drawn together, tense and narrowed eyes, and tight lips; disgust, by the lips pulled up
and the nose crinkling. In fear, the upper white of the eyes
are revealed as the eyebrows raise and the mouth stretches open, while surprise looks similar, but with rounded eyebrows
and relaxed lips. Sadness is indicated by the inner corners
of the eyebrows being drawn inwards and upwards, drooping eyes, and a downturned mouth. And of course there’s happiness: lips drawn up and back, and raised cheeks causing wrinkling
around the eyes. More recently, researchers
have proposed additional entries such as contempt, shame, and disapproval, but opinions vary
on how distinct boundaries between these categories can be drawn. So if Ekman and other researchers
are correct, what makes certain expressions universal? And why are they expressed
in these particular ways? Scientists have a lot of theories rooted
in our evolutionary history. One is that certain expressions
are important for survival. Fear and surprise could signal
to others an immediate danger. Studies of humans and some other primates have found that we pay more attention
to faces that signal threats over neutral faces, particularly when we’re already
on high alert. Expressions also could
help improve group fitness by communicating our internal states
to those around us. Sadness, for example, signals to the group
that something’s wrong. There’s some evidence that expressions might be even more directly linked
to our physiology. The fear expression, for instance, could directly improve survival
in potentially dangerous situations by letting our eyes absorb more light and our lungs take in more air,
preparing us to fight or flee. There’s still much research to be done
in understanding emotional expression, particularly as we learn more about
the inner workings of the brain. But if you ever find yourself
among strangers in a strange land, a friendly smile could go a long way.


  • TED-Ed

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  • Snowcold

    Really cool video, and a great animation style 😀

    PS: You wrote "Bucharest, Hungary" at the end, I think you meant Budapest

  • Älljhfdwtyjbkouvfeyjkhftbnu Ihcegvbkjgfhbj

    0:48 look at photo number 3 and tell me that that is not ”the father” from far cry 5

  • ali ameer

    Hey.. can I professes my problem. … I would like to get the knowledge as people get. .. but I can't understand clearly. … can u please add arabic translation when u up vedios directly? Iam and as much people here are Arabian )

  • Beata Dohi

    Bucharest, Hungary?
    Sorry, but there is a mistake. Bucharest is the capital of Romania, and the capital of Hungary is Budapest. Is a common mistake, don't worry, just please correct it. 😊

  • Aitor Tilla

    TED-Ed if you are going to talk about EMOTIONS you should've brought David Cage, because he is the creator of EMOTIONS and also he knows how many EMOTIONS are in a polygon (he also met Ellen Page who is an actress because she told him about it)

  • Stranger Happened

    IT IS AMAZING that even the scientific part of humanity was so dense that it has required like hundreds of years to understand that some basic emotions have built-in face expressions. Just witnessing abandoned newborn babies or blind-from-birth people could have made it clear that e.g. smiling has nothing to do with taught behaviours. No one has ever really smiled for them, and yet the babies know how to smile and it does express joy.

  • Stefi Pop

    So you could say that the universal language are expressions?
    ( apart from mathematics, of course,although not all tribes,or really poor people have access to that knowledge:(,it should be for everyone)

  • Laurence Nguyen

    I’ve been wondering about this exact topic for a while now. I agree, certain emotions are associated with universal facial expressions. Others are learned from the society we live in. For example, some people roll their eyes when they’re annoyed, but that’s something we’ve picked up in movies and TV.

  • Gaia Bøhm Andresen

    Some of you might recognize five of the six core emotions, as they can be seen in Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’. 'Surprise' was removed since it was too close to their version of Fear.

  • Gabriela de la Llana

    I see what you did there in selecting your characters, Inside Out! (The core emotions identified here from scientific studies are exactly the major characters that the movie follows).

  • David Lucey

    Here is a possibility

    Expression may be universal, but the cultural norms of what expression is appropriate, and when it is appropriate, are highly variable.

  • Lou Bold

    "But if you ever find yourself among strangers in a strange land, a friendly smile could go a long way" is such a beautiful sentiment ❤️

  • Sourcedrop

    Facial expression is the result of energy movement, including direction, intensity, and open/closedness through our nonphysical energy centers (aka chakras). The nonphysical is intimately connected to the physical counterpart.

  • Freaksoftheinternet

    I would have guessed that emotional expressions are essentially universal because when you become really happy, you kinda can't help but smile. You definitely don't always consciously choose to smile (or make any other facial expression for that matter), which means there's something innate about it that none of us "learned" as a result of culture or surroundings.

  • Travel Muffin

    Isn't contemporary research undermining this sort of view? Check out the book "How Emotions are Made." It's a bit lengthy, but it made a very compelling case against the perspective proposed in this video

  • Robert G.

    "40 or so muscles" – euh, how many is it, really? Is the "or so" due to mutations (one more / less in different people) or due to unclear boundaries (where does the fare start and the neck stop etc)?

  • Sam

    Anyone who has ever had a baby knows the facial expressions are the first and most important tool humans use to communicate with each other. A baby's smile is one of the first (and one of the best) milestones they reach.

  • Mujahid Syed

    Me= rolls eyes whatever…
    (nice video, as always and the spelling of Dammam, Saudi Arabia in the end is incorrect) 🙂

  • Rozzane Juresr

    Once when I was little and my sister was a baby I asked my mother if she was sure that when the baby smiled it was happy and when it cried it wasn’t. It could be that the baby was sad and smiling we think it is happy. I think I knew that expressions are universal till then

  • The Weird And Obscene

    I think the Theroey of Evolution is wrong because it is proven so it is the Theorem of Evolution

  • Kenza Elfellah

    4:30 it’s either Bucharest-Romania or Budapest-Hungary. For an educational channel, this sure is a pretty big mess up

  • Alec Matthew Granados

    Ted Ed I LOVE the way you explain things so much. I'm not even big on science but I'll happily watch any science video you make.

  • Tarun Kumar

    If we really wish to learn more about universal expressions we should study the facial expressions and behavior of babies whose minds are completely uninfluenced from the outside world

  • LordScuti

    This video was not satifactory… I never comment negative things but this had to be spoken, low grade information and didnt innovate any knowledge. I waiting throughout entire video to learn something, im not in grade school anymore

  • Ilovekpop Got7

    I think our expression is like bird songs. it is in our DNA and we will learn it eventually even if our society, parent or culture don't teach it us. We are going to end up using same expression like birds end up using same song.

  • steffeeH

    To clarify, not all facial expressions are universal – there are 6 facial expressions that are academically considered universal, and further 3 that could be universal as well – but the rest may vary by culture, region, and/or personality.

  • Sean Mundy

    Because of Dr. Eckman's research and contribution to emotional psychology, we now have the amazing modern classic that is "Inside Out."

  • M J

    At my church, the bassist in the worship team is from Siberia. My dad was visiting my church for the first time, and he asked me if she was Russian, because there was something about her facial expression that "seemed Russian." We figured out that it was her smile. It seemed "off" to us. I've read that Russian culture discourages smiling, but American churches (in my experience) encourage big smiles from anyone up front, so she was maybe trying to imitate an expression that she had repressed most of her life. I wonder if there are other situations where culture affects how universal emotions are expressed, e.g., through taboos on certain expressions?

  • Elsa

    Now I wonder if theres such universal micro expression or not, because details like eyes can be interpreted wrong by people. For instance eyes that focusing and thinking are pretty similar to eyes that focusing and angry.

  • Necrotesque

    Ekman's methodology was a trainwreck. Completly biaised so he could obtain the conclusions he wanted. His work was critized by PhD and professor Rachael Jack, she is a brilliant scientist with a more modern approach on emotion research. Here's some reading for those interested:

  • Panic Wolf Frolly Productions

    Most Superior Animal Classes: Avian and Mammal
    Most Universal Element: Fire
    Most Universal Sign: Leo
    Most Universal Emotions: Joy and Anger

    Admit, we’re all Leo’s, just some more than others.

  • JJ Smith

    I'd guess that facial expressions are a remnant from when we communicated more nonverbally than we did after we developed complex spoken language. If so, then maybe people with ASD are a step in evolving away from them, since they tend to be difficult and unnatural for us to read.

  • jerald james montgomery

    If you're reading this, I'll let you know that you are so special, so genuine and so loved. Go on, keep on dreaming and reach for your stars.

    A quick reminded from a small youtuber. 🙂

  • Katie

    It makes sense. Communication is very important to a species or else the species will not be as strong. It's biological, like the way a dog automatically wags its tail when it is happy, or bares its teeth when it is being threatened.

  • Tino Trivino

    There are two Types of Emotional Facial Expressions. The cultural learned, and the Instinct like disgust, sadness, fear etc!
    Video is correct.

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