Monday, June 6, 2011

The Channels of Emotion: Not (Just) in the Face!

"Emotions are the heart of social living." -- E. J. Horberg, 2011

As the above quote suggests, emotions serve important social functions in our everyday lives. Emotions communicate important information about the social context, emotions provide a window into others' (hidden) intentions, and emotions can be communicated quickly and accurately in brief displays of behavior. These are all truisms of emotion, and perhaps explain the explosion of emotion research over the last 25 years.

The iconic expressions from Ekman & Friesen's (1971) study (source)

Most of the research regarding how people communicate emotion has been conducted using the face. The most iconic of these first studies involved Paul Ekman of the University of California, San Francisco who, in 1971, showed facial expressions of emotion to a pre-literate community of people in New Guinea. The people from New Guinea--despite having no exposure to mass media--recognized emotions in the posed facial expressions of people from the United States at levels that far-exceeded those expected due to chance. This research was among the first, and most compelling, in the early efforts to establish universality in emotion expression. Clearly, emotions are expressed through unique facial expressions.

Paul Ekman, emotion pioneer (source)

Early on, researchers believed that the face was the only channel of emotion communication, but that changed in the 1990's. Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley examined the specific display of embarassment, finding that the signal includes a ritualized pattern of body movement and facial expression (turning the head away, touching the face with one's hand, averting the gaze, and a flush of color to the face).

The time course of the embarrassment expression (source)

Interestingly, more recent research indicates that people communicate emotions in channels completely separate from the face. In work conducted by Matt Hertenstein of Depauw University and Keltner, touch communicates specific emotions. In this work, participants never speak to each other, and are brought into a large experiment room separated by a curtain. One of the participants is then asked to reach their hand onto the other side of the curtain. The other participant is then asked to deliver physical touch to the extended hand of their partner with the goal of conveying specific emotions to the partner through touch.

Amazingly, people can also reliably and accurately recognize specific emotions expressed through touch in this paradigm. Moreover, certain emotions that people typically can't recognize very well in the face--such as compassion or empathy--are actually very accurately expressed through touch! That touch communicates emotions like compassion and empathy makes sense given that touch is a way in which people pass on physical sensations of warmth (take a look at Juli's post on literal metaphors if you are interested in this idea).

The communication of emotion, via touch (source)

More recent evidence suggests that the voice is also powerful communicator of emotion. In this research, participants were given vocal bursts without words and were asked to try and guess the emotions expressed in these vocalizations. Again, participants were able to recognize unique emotions through these vocal bursts at levels of accuracy well above those expected by chance.

So what can we take away from this post? I think emotions really are at the heart of social life, and that humans have adapted a diverse array of channels for expressing them. I also think this research suggests that we are just scratching the surface when it comes to understanding the many ways in which emotions are expressed. Exciting times are ahead in the world of emotion!

What do you think should be the future of emotion research? Let us know in the comments.

Hertenstein MJ, Holmes R, McCullough M, & Keltner D (2009). The communication of emotion via touch. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 9 (4), 566-73 PMID: 19653781

Keltner D, & Anderson C (2000). Saving face for Darwin: Functions and uses of embarrassment Current Directions in Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/1467-8721.00091


  1. If emotions are the heart of social living, and a big portion of modern social living happens online, I think researching how emotion interacts with technology is an interesting future direction for emotion research.

    Look at the success of YouTube or TED, for example. Videos allow us to read emotional cues from multiple channels, including the face, voice, and body movement, which is much more than we can do through text alone. I think the success of Skype and Apple's FaceTime app is built on successfully matching evolutionarily ancient modes of emotional communication (e.g., reading emotion) with technological solutions (e.g., low-lag video).

    Unfortunately, we may need to wait a while until we can use touch to communicate with each other online. Imagine being able to really high-five your friend instead of pressing 'Like' button...

  2. Thanks for the comment Ilmo! I really like the idea of studying emotion expression/recognition through online channels.