Each week BBC.com sends out a newsletter If You Only Read Six Things This Week. There is generally at least one article that piques my interest but this week there was 22 Carat Gold. The article Why Our Facial Expressions Don’t Reflect Our Feelings is a bombshell in the world of Emotional Intelligence.
Since the publication of Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence in 1995 one of the cornerstones of EQ theory has been Paul Ekman’s theory of Core Emotions based on Facial Expressions. In his book, Daniel Goleman posed the question as to whether there was a theory of core emotions. Goleman wrote he did not have an answer but said he was sure one existed due to the work that Paul Ekman had done recognising emotions in pre-literate societies. Since then Ekman has rode the crest of the Emotional Intelligence wave both in the film “Inside Out” and using micro-expressions in the TV series “Lie to Me”.
I have reviewed Inside Out which I thought was an excellent film but where I cast doubt on Ekman’s model. However I am the first to admit I found great difficulty trying to use micro-expression as a way of detecting emotions in people. I blogged about my micro-expression problems in some detail. It is with some relief that I read the BBC article.
The key tenant in the article is that facial expressions don’t reflect our feelings. Instead of reliable readouts of our emotional states, they show our intentions and social goals. Our expressions are less a mirror of what’s going on inside than a signal we’re sending about what we want to happen next. New research is challenging two of the main pillars of basic emotion theory. First is the idea that some emotions are universally shared and recognised. Second is the belief that facial expressions are reliable reflectors of those emotions. Using the same methodology as Ekman (going to pre-literate cultures in Papua New Guinea and Mozambique), Carlos Crivelli found that study participants did not attribute emotions to faces in the same way Westerners do. Maria Gendron found similar reactions while studying other indigenous groups – the Himba people in Namibia and the Hadza in Tanzania. In a 2017 a meta-analysis of about 50 studies, researchers found that only a minority of people’s faces reflected their actual feelings.
If our expressions don’t actually reflect our feelings, there are enormous consequences. Alan Fridlund, a psychology professor at University of California Santa Barbara has argued that the face acts “like a road sign to affect the traffic that’s going past it, our faces are ways we direct the trajectory of a social interaction.” (It should be noted Fridlund early in his career collaborated on two articles with Ekman before becoming disillusioned with Ekman’s ideas.) A big worry is the area of Artificial Intelligence. A good number of people are training their artificial intelligence and their social robots using these classic ‘poster’ faces. However, if someone who frowns at a robot is signalling something other than simple unhappiness, the AI may respond to them incorrectly. Fridlund feels that AI taught to draw from contextual cues will be more effective. I could not agree more.
I would argue that your dominant core emotions are driven by your temperament – what you are genetically born with. Based on a study of 11,000 identical twins nature is around twice as important as nurture. I have found the 7MTF/Humm model of seven core emotions the most practical tool for people to use and once understood (takes a day) dramatically lifts their emotional intelligence. This is the key to emotional intelligence, understanding your core emotions compared to your transient emotions. If you want to learn about the 7MTF/Humm download my free white paper.
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