Basic emotions theory (BET) is the most popular and deeply rooted psychological theory of both emotion and the facial behavior held to express it. We review its Western foundations and the key developments in its evolution, focusing on its parsing of facial expressions into two kinds: biological, categorical, iconic, universal “facial expressions of emotion,” versus modified, culturally diverse versions of those iconic expressions due to intermediation by learned “display rules.” We suggest that this dichotomy and its many corollaries are oversimplified, and that many of BET’s recent modifications are inconsistent in ways that may render it impossible to test and immune to falsification. In contrast, we suggest that the behavioral ecology view of facial displays, as an externalist and functionalist approach, resolves the quandaries and contradictions embedded in BET’s precepts and extensions.
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Throughout this chapter, we use facial behavior or facial display following the ethological tradition. On occasion, we use the term “expression” by convention, but without the implication that facial behaviors transmit any “content”.
Unless otherwise stated, whenever we use the term “emotion,” it denotes the construal of that term within that particular research. Thus, it should not be assumed that “emotion” as used in one study or line of research is the same construct, or refers to the same set of behaviors, used in the next.
LeBrun’s depictions of the passions lie at the heart of BET, and via their insinuation into Basic Emotion Theories, they became ubiquitous in psychology and neuroscience. Indeed, skeptical approaches to these iconic Western representations of the passions are regarded by some BET advocates as anti-Darwinian or non-evolutionary (Ekman 2017; Izard 1971; Tracy 2014).
Lamarckian use-inheritance was popular during Charles Darwin’s time, and Darwin invoked it throughout Expression. It is now considered untenable. Note that inheritance through usage was required for Lamarckian transmission, unlike epigenetic marking, an accepted mechanism for within-lifespan acquisition of heritable traits (Armstrong 2014).
In Tomkins’s theoretical hermeneutics, (1) the “affects” were the bodily responses and the expressions, (2) the awareness of affect was the “feeling,” and (3) the feeling embedded in the context of memories of prior similar feelings was the “emotion.” These distinctions largely dropped out of subsequent BET formulations, which regarded “basic emotions” as hermetic packages which might be modulated by drives or triggered by memories.
Tracy and Randles (2011) highlighted four BET “models” and invited their representative supporters to a special issue of Emotion Review dedicated to BET (Ekman and Cordaro 2011; Izard 2011; Levenson 2011; Panksepp and Watt 2011). Although Ekman, Izard, Levinson, and Panksepp proposed different theories of basic emotions, Ekman’s model remains the most comprehensive in its stipulations and predictions.
There is considerable hand-waving among BET theorists, and emotion researchers generally, about the multifactorial nature of emotion, along with the discounting provision that qualia are only one component. Because qualia are unverifiable, no measurable proxies have been substantiated, and alterations in the other averred components (overt movements, autonomic adjustments, neurally localized activities) are only weakly intercorrelated and do not appear to conform to standard emotion typologies (e.g., Durán et al. 2017). We find no fault with a “multifactorial” definition of anything, of course, providing that the definition sets out what factors are expected and when. No such specification has been forthcoming, lending weight to the interpretation that the “multifactorial” definition merely postpones definition.
The mechanism governing display rules mutated over the years. Originally, there were universals in the antecedent events that could trigger activation of the Facial Affect Program (Ekman 1984; Ekman and Cordaro 2011), and the Program’s outputs were intercepted and aligned with display rules before they could erupt on the face. The interception points were never delineated, but the pre-post interception expressions may “differ in the involvement of the pyramidal and nonpyramidal pathways” (Ekman et al. 1981, p. 102). Objections by appraisal theorists (Scherer and Wallbott 1994) were accommodated by allowing that cultural differences in displays might hold sway on the stimulus end, such that complex appraisals could differentially determine what combination of basic emotions was activated. Thus, for appraisal theorists the action of cultural display rules changed from an output mechanism that altered the production of expressions, to an input mechanism that selected the emotions elicited. This particular redefinition of display rules appears to inject further doubt into how one interprets the three conditions of the Japanese-American experiment, which predicated its test of display rules on the prior assumption of equal emotions (Fridlund 1994; Leys 2017).
We confine our discussion here to BET’s categorical “facial expressions of emotion.” Ekman and Friesen (1969b) provided examples of other kinds of facial behavior such as symbolic faces (e.g., stylized tongue protrusions for “yucks!,” tongues in cheeks for skepticism), movements that highlighted language (e.g., brow flashes to show momentary interest) or regulated conversation (e.g., frowns to indicate disapproval, brow flashes in turn-taking), and self-stimulatory behavior (e.g., lip-wiping). These protolinguistic and paralinguistic movements probably constitute the vast majority of everyday facial behavior. Chovil’s detailed observations of dyadic conversations suggested that fewer than 20% could be classified as one of BET’s categorical “expressions of emotion” (Chovil 1989, 1991). Likewise, Fridlund (1994, p. 312) suggested that many occurrences of those iconic BET faces may simply be paralinguistic interjections.
Apart from repeating Ekman’s incomplete account, Matsumoto and Hwang’s (2013) quote illustrates the common conflation of “emotions” and “expressions” within BET: What can be masked within BET is not the emotions but the expressions of those emotions.
Western commentators on the Neurocultural Model and its origins in Tomkins’s and prior categorical views on emotion often do not indicate just how Western the models are, when they: (1) reductively neurologize emotion and make its “essence” a collection of neural circuits, and (2) make emotion intracorporeal and thus subpersonal. Different ideas about “emotion” that are not reductive or subpersonal abound in other cultures and even in the history of Western conceptions of emotion, and non-reductive emotion accounts have emerged in contemporary psychology (e.g., Barrett 2017; Russell 2009). Given the ineffability and intractability of modern emotion concepts, one is hard-put to be presentist and claim progress. Lang (2018), Matt (2011), Reddy (2009), Rosenwein (2014) and especially Plamper (2015) have reviewed “turns” in scholarly treatments of emotion and how it has been: (a) experienced (originally in largely moral and/or theological terms), (b) expressed (as a function of race, religion, social class, gender roles, family structure and child-rearing practices, and a host of other factors), (c) localized (in neurology, as adduced from ritual actions or other culturally situated action trajectories, or as an emergent process interstitial among cultural members), and (d) judged (dangerous, unruly, or advantageous). As Stearns and Stearns (1985) stated in their classic paper on “emotionology,” “No longer can we assume without proof … that people in the past shared our emotional experience, that we can use contemporary psychology to elucidate past behavior, or that we can use past data, without careful analysis, to bolster contemporary psychological theory” (p. 820).
Al-Shawaf et al. (2016) do not account for how “emotions” could be products of natural selection unless they were causal entities that produced behavior benefitting reproductive fitness, directly or indirectly. Natural selection works on proximal effects and not interior causes, and so the evolution of specific “emotions” would imply selection of behaviors specifically attributable to those emotions. BET (pre-1992) was not adaptationist given that it embraced Darwin’s reflexive, vestigial view. The ev-psych framework (post-1992), however, emphasized adaptive, strategic movements, but not necessarily automatic “expressions of emotions.” Indeed, much of evolutionary game theory had already suggested the tactical benefits of non-expression (e.g., Krebs and Dawkins 1984).
Previous treatments of BECV presented facial displays from the emitter’s standpoint, as “declarations of intent,” or indications of “social motives” (e.g., Fridlund 1994, 1997, 2017a). Here (Table 1) we present common usages of those facial displays. We made this shift because, despite our repeated statement that “intentions” and “motives” in BECV were external and to be adduced from the emitter’s line of action, many readers insisted on treating them as subpersonal, psychological states that were interchangeable with, or part of, emotion. The alternative presentations are equivalent because the likeliest scenario for the evolution of signals like facial displays is that they arose biologically via the ritualization, or culturally via the conventionalization, of Heinroth’s and Huxley’s “intention movements.” These movements were incipient versions of social actions (Fridlund 1994; Smith 1977).
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This research was funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant (SRG18R1-180740) awarded to Carlos Crivelli.
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Crivelli, C., Fridlund, A.J. Inside-Out: From Basic Emotions Theory to the Behavioral Ecology View. J Nonverbal Behav 43, 161–194 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-019-00294-2