When people use cues other than words to communicate, they often think first of facial expressions. Facial expressions involve movements of the face that change dynamically in the course of an interaction. People also use more static facial features (e.g., eye color, shape of nose) as part of the communication process. Both facial expressions and static face cues are considered here.
The face has long been a source of curiosity. Early interest in faces focused on “facereading” or physiognomy (Fridlund 1994). Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Galen, Aristotle, Della Porta, and Caspar Lavater were among the many well-known figures to propose methods of assessing static (and sometimes dynamic) features of the face to determine medical conditions, personality, temperament, and divinity (Fridlund & Russell 2006).
Whereas dynamic cues are thought to be more communicative, and the bulk of contemporary scholarship on the face seeks to understand how they function, static cues are still studied for the ways in which they work as identity displays and affect perceptions (often negatively). For example, Heatherton et al. (2000) looked at the ways in which certain craniofacial anomalies, like harelips and scarring, “can lead to aversion reactions and, like all stigma, result in social marginalization” (Fridlund & Russell 2006, 301). Cole (1998) likewise details the identity issues that arise for people with various physical conditions that affect the face and, for instance, make it immobile. In his work, he found that people with Mobius syndrome (a condition where people, from birth, have immobile faces) are often assumed to be unintelligent, even though the condition only affects motor movement. Cole also discusses the effects of facial disfigurement and Parkinson’s disease on people’s view of themselves and their experience of emotion.
Other scholars have looked at the more general feature of “facial attractiveness.” In a recent review, Guerrero & Floyd (2006) argued that specific characteristics tend to make up faces that, across cultures, are seen as more attractive. The static facial features that tend to be judged as more attractive include facial symmetry, neoteny (i.e., looking more juvenile; this includes full lips, shorter noses, and eyes that are more widely separated), and koinophilia (i.e., faces with “average” rather than extraordinary traits). The authors also make the argument that there are survival-based explanations for our tendency to make attractiveness judgments for these facial features.
As noted, there is a larger set of studies focused on the movements that faces make when people engage in conversation. These dynamic cues are often referenced as facial expressions. Perhaps best known of the work in this area is scholarship that has documented the range of movements that the face can make. Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System (Ekman & Rosenberg 1998) and the Maximally Discriminative Facial Movement Coding System (MAX) developed by Izard (1979) are two of the well-known schemes used to reveal the range of dynamic cues available to most communicators.
The concern with facial expressions in modern scholarship often co-varies with an interest in emotional expressions. That is, for many scholars, a, if not the, primary function of facial expressions is as a vehicle for the expression of emotion. Stemming from this assumption, much of the scholarship on facial expressions, particularly work by Izard, Ekman, and Matsumoto, has sought to determine the extent to which emotional expressions are innate and universal. Matsumoto (2006, 222) summarized the origins of this research, stating that
[q]uestions concerning the universality of facial expression find their roots in Charles Darwin’s work. Darwin’s thesis, summarized in The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, suggested that emotions and their expressions had evolved across species, were evolutionarily adaptive, biologically innate, and universal across all human and even non-human primates. According to Darwin . . . , humans, regardless of race or culture, possessed the ability to express emotions in exactly the same ways, primarily through their faces.
The large body of scholarship concerning the universality of emotional expressions has resulted in a range of conclusions, with some scholars arguing for universal recognition of at least some basic emotions. Specifically, although cultures develop display rules that affect when, where, how, and with whom we express emotions, people from diverse cultures can recognize photographs where persons are posing or have generated spontaneously particular emotional expressions such as anger, happiness, and sadness (see, e.g., Matsumoto 1990). Moreover, work by scholars looking at congenitally blind infants finds evidence for emotional expressions that must arguably be innate (see, e.g., Charlesworth & Kreutzer 1973).
Others argue that the question is less clear. For instance, some scholars assert that the methodologies employed in many of the “universality studies” were based on a form of facial expression (posed photographs) that does not mirror how people actually use their faces. Motley (1993), for example, had study participants interact while being videotaped. His assessment of those tapes showed that most of the facial movements associated with emotional expressions tended to be relatively brief and ambiguous, understood only in relation to what was being said concurrently in the conversation. There were no instances of the types of expressions used to assess universality in many studies.
Still other scholars have taken issue with the central contention that facial cues are best characterized as emotional expressions. Fridlund and Russell are perhaps best known for their work in this area. Following what Fridlund (1992) labeled the Behavioral Ecology View (BEV) of facial displays, the authors have explored the idea that social motives rather than emotions are the primary internal concepts that drive communicative facial displays (see review in Fridlund & Russell 2006). They argue that it is rare to see a facial expression that extends only or even largely from an emotion; rather, the dynamic features of our faces are more likely to be tied to other meanings or functions.
In support of this, Chovil (1991) worked to identify the primary forms that facial movements take in everyday discourse. A careful analysis of 1,184 facial movements drawn from 12 pairs of people talking to one another led her to assert that there were five primary types of facial displays. Chovil referred to these as syntactic displays, which are facial movements connected with either intonation or syntactical features of talk that are redundant with what the speaker is saying. Speaker illustrators depict or represent what the speaker is discussing; speaker comments show information that is separate from what the speaker is stating verbally; listener comments appear to respond to what the speaker is saying; and non-linguistic adaptors seem to have no clear relation to ongoing speech, and include such things as biting one’s lips. In only some cases were these movements tied to what could be described as an emotion.
Facial cues are an important part of interactions. Static cues provide the source of information people use in their assessments of others. Dynamic cues make up the larger array of potentially meaningful communicative messages. Although the messages people assume are communicated through the face are emotional messages, many scholars argue that the picture of what is expressed through facial expressions is a murkier, if more interesting, set of meanings.
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