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How are facial expressions learned?

Updated on September 29, 2014

Facial expressions

Facial expressions are necessary in being a good communicator. Facial expressions describe exactly what we are thinking. When you see a person have a look of disgust you know exactly what is going through their head, because you have experienced it before. You have had that same expression but maybe because of something different. Also being able to read facial expressions will tell you how a person really feels, and in many jobs that is a crucial skill to have.

How is facial expression learned?

This question was raised years ago by some prominent scientists. How are facial expressions learned? Is it through their environment (their culture) or is it something universal that is innately learned. Our environment plays a big role in our learning and on our view of the world. Many cultures speak the same language, but many times there are words that have meanings that differ from culture to culture. Culture can also play a big part on how we view the world. Whether or not you think that war is a good thing can greatly depend on your environment and where you grew up.

Paul Ekman.
Paul Ekman.

Darwin and Paul Ekman

This question had been around for a long time. In fact the famous Charles Darwin wrote a paper about it. In Darwin's paper he expressed the thought that facial expressions are universal, and that it is something innately learned. He claimed that all humans feel the same emotion and will express it in the same body language. In the 1950's the most popular belief among scientists was that facial expressions were actually learned through culture and therefore differed from culture to culture. A man named Paul Ekman who was documenting nonverbal communication decided to document it across cultures to see how different it was between different cultures.

How do you think facial expressions are learned?

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Paul Ekman's research

Paul Ekman decided wanted to go to a culture that couldn't be affected by the media. He was afraid that if a culture was exposed to the media then they would know what certain facial expressions meant even though it wasn't a part of their culture. He found that culture in Papa New Guinea. He found a tribe that was cut off from the world. They didn't have any media and didn't have contact with people outside of their culture. He would show them different facial expressions to see if they new what the expressions meant.

Fore tribe, Papa New Guinea
Fore tribe, Papa New Guinea

Paul Ekman's Findings

What Paul found was surprising to him. He thought that facial expressions were learned culturally but he found that some facial expressions relating to emotion were universal. Expressions like happiness, sadness, anger, embarrassment, fright, etc were universal emotions with universal expressions. Another interesting thing that he found is that in some cultures it is ok for only certain individuals to show these emotions. Sometimes it was difficult to see certain emotions in cultures, but these emotions were all recognized due to the facial expressions.

Paul Ekman

The result of his findings

As a result of this, people began to study facial expressions and their meanings in order to figure out if someone is lying. Paul Ekman himself became an investigator and would help the police and other private contractors in finding out if someone was lying or not. His methods are actually taught today in certain law enforcement branches to help aid in investigations.


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