Emotion evolution

You can tell a lot from person’s face…or can you? Conventional wisdom is that facial expressions portray certain basic emotional states and that evolution has hard-wired us to recognise those expressions as a social signalling system. New research has questioned whether this simplistic notion is in fact accurate.

The prevailing belief in both the general community and psychological circles has been that expressions evolved to express particular mental states and prepare people observing those signals to act in certain ways. For instance, widening the eyes when you are afraid might help you take in more information about the scene at the same time as signalling to people around you that something dangerous is happening. Evolutionary theory would be happy with this idea, because it is based on an expression evolving because it serves a survival purpose.

The new report however, has cast doubt on whether this is actually what happens. For instance, when have you seem somebody who is genuinely sad pouting? The researchers contend that people only pout when they want to look sad, not when they actually are sad.

Some psychologists say that emotions regulate your physical response to a situation. These researchers however, say that there is no evidence that a certain emotion produces the same physical changes each time it is experienced or in each person who experiences it. For instance, people could do a range of different things when they feel anger; yell, withdraw, or even smile.

The essential point made by these researchers is that rather than believing in around seven basic emotions that can be recognised by everybody in the world, psychologists should focus on understanding the differences in how people feel and express emotions. As part of their argument they make the point that even Charles Darwin said that emotional expressions like smiles and frowns were like our vestigial tailbone and occur even though they no longer have a use. True as this may be, it would still be unwise to dismiss your partner’s pout as being “as useless as a tailbone”.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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