Theories of Emotion and Emotional Expression
When it comes to theories of emotion, there is no shortage of ideas, and they have come from diverse sources.
Philosophers have offered many proposals concerning emotion, throughout the ages, from the ancient Greeks to Sartre and modern scholars.
Creative artists have proposed
explanations for emotion, its meaning and impact, and ways to portray it in sculpture and painting.
Natural scientists, such as physiologists and animal behaviorists, etc., have speculated on the origins, evolution, and functions of emotion.
Psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists have proliferated theories about emotion and its significance to the individual and society.
Other disciplines also have their views on emotion, including political science, economics, performing arts, etc.
In this dicussion, we focus on theories that have to do with emotion and facial expression.
To put these theories in perspective, it helps to understand emotional expression.
Emotional Expression as Essential to Emotion Experience
In some theories, emotional expression is regarded as an integral aspect of the emotion process.
Some theorists have proposed that emotional expression underlies the experience of emotion, which includes the felt quality of emotion.
William James, a Harvard professor in the late 19th century, is a well known proponent of the view
that perceiving the bodily changes during emotion constitutes the emotional experience, and without this perception,
emotion would be pale and colorless.
James argued strongly that there is no thing in the mind called emotion that precipitates bodily activity, rather the reverse is true.
James collaborated with the German, Lange, a student of Wundt, who independently proposed a similar theory, to develop this idea.
James thought that the body acted like a sounding board, struck by neural impulses to create the waves of change
that could then be sensed by the brain as a quality of emotional feeling.
Thus, the varieties and shades of emotion are as infinite as the bodily patterns that neural action can create,
and the categories of emotion are arbitrary and academic. James himself proposed the crucial test of this hypothesis in the
experiments of nature where the neural system is damaged so that bodily changes cannot be sensed.
Although several experiments on this theme have been reported in the literature, their interpretation is problematic,
though generally viewed as failing to support James's hypothesis.
Another aspect of James's theory of emotion is that the bodily changes are immediately effected by the nervous system,
in a process only slightly more complex than a reflex or instinctual reaction.
More recent research indicates that some emotional changes may take rather longer to occur.
James thought that every instinctual response sets off an emotion, but there are many other sources of emotional response,
which may be as gross as rage or as subtle as an aesthetic appreciation of beauty.
He believed there are no brain centers specific to emotion nor to any specific emotion,
an idea that recent research casts serious doubt upon.
He argued that people vary in their ability to preserve and recall experiences of emotion,
and the degree to which they experience emotion in general.
Repeated emotion results in blunting more readily than in other types of feelings.
He thought that facial expressions, and other bodily changes, result from either weakened repetitions of formerly useful actions
or continue to be physiologically useful reactions.
Silvan Tomkins, a mid-20th century psychologist, took part of the James-Lange theory a step further
by proposing that the sensations provided by emotional expressions, vascular changes, and other changes in the face
are the source of the qualitatively different feelings of emotion, e.g., happy from sad, fear from anger.
Perception of other bodily changes provides less specific feelings of emotion.
He argued, contrary to James, that there are specific categories of emotion that have evolved for certain functional, adaptive reasons,
which are likewise reflected in neural organization.
These categories of emotion correspond to specific categories of facial expressions and are organized around their facial expressions.
For example, emotions related to disgust derive from the prototype of rejecting food that is noxious or dangerous to eat,
with a core expression of opening the mouth and lips, and pushing out with the tongue.
This prototype disgust reaction has generalized to other rejection scenarios, such as the emotion of contempt,
where the object is another person, and the emotion of shame, where the object is the self.
He enumerated the emotion categories, specified their expressions, and described each emotion extensively in a multi-volume work.
The main thesis of this work is that the emotion system is the primary motivational system for a wide range of human behaviors.
Another distinctive aspect of his theory is accounting for the elicitors of emotion in terms of a general level and rate
of increase or decrease of neural stimulation.
His theory of emotion (affect in his terms) has many other aspects and weaves into the account many interesting facets of psychology.
He did not hesitate to take on difficult philosophical issues, such as free will and consciousness,
and to connect emotion with significant areas of psychology, such as cognition and abnormal psychology.
Silvan Tomkins's new look at facial expression and emotion, together with his persuasive charisma,
was largely responsible for encouraging the work of colleagues in the late 20th century that resulted
in a heightened place in psychology for these topics.
He also had a reputation of being an acute judge of others and an insightful interpreter of faces.
Facial Expression as an Adaptive Communications Mechanism
Some theorists have focussed on the power of emotional expression to convey messages about the expressor
as the center of their theories about emotion.
Charles Darwin cast the topic of emotional expression, and especially facial expressions, into a modern scientific treatment
in the mid-nineteenth century, and provided a basis for considering facial expressions as behaviors that evolved as a mechanism of communication.
Although Darwin himself put little emphasis on the communicative potential of facial expression of emotion as an object of adaptive selection,
the thrust of his general work suggests this connection and encouraged later scientists to elaborate upon this mechanism.
One branch of this tradition is the approach to studying animal behaviors known as ethology.
Early ethologists, such as Konrad Lorenz, studied stimulus-response patterns in animals,
where fixed action patterns are elicited by distinct sign-stimuli having evolutionary significance, or releasers.
Later, ethologists studied human behavior in light of these concepts and findings,
and began to elaborate the communicative significance of both human and animal facial expressions.
Eibl-Eibesfeld, for example, studied facial expressions, such as smiling, and other specific facial behaviors,
such as the eyebrow flash, in the context of their adaptive value in a communicative framework.
Some psychologists have also emphasized the communicative functions of facial expressions in relation to emotion.
These two general ways, in which facial expressions play a role in theories of emotion, are discussed further in the online document
The Inner and Outer Meanings of Facial Expression.