Getting My Bearings

One week of research is almost over; it’s hard to believe. I’m still in the early stages: lots of reading for my lit review, resubmitting to the IRB, choosing stimuli for our program, and working on designing the program itself.


I’m using PsychoPy right now to design the experiment flow. PsychoPy is a GUI interface for creating psychology experiments for a computer screen. It also has the option to code the program directly using Python, which is its underlying implementation. Since I’ve now taken two Python courses for my CompSci major, it’s now time to put those to use! My advisor also suggested learning some C++ and usingthat to design the program, since that’s what our collaborators in Japan have done for past, similar experiments. Learning a whole new programming language this summer seems pretty intense, but C++ is something I’m looking to learn anyway, and there are so many great resources available for learning programming languages these days. My background in Python should help as well: I’ve already mastered most of the conceptual hurdles of programming.


Photo on 2013-06-05 at 16.49 #3

(Practicing my facial expressions while preparing to delve into all of the facial expression books I checked out from Swem.)


In terms of background research for my lit review, I am amazed at, and a bit overwhelmed by, the immensity of previous research about facial expressions and emotions. It shouldn’t really surprise me, considering how fundamental both are to our daily lives. The major current school of thought, the Facial Expression Program, dates back to theories proposed by Darwin. Granted, the propositions of the Facial Expression Program today contradict many of Darwin’s ideas, but many of them are still eliciting controversy and further study.

Darwin believed that to believe that facial expressions are a medium specifically designed to communicate or convey emotions wastantamount to the creationist ideas he had fought to debunk. He argued that facial expressions, though they may be considered methods of communication now, originally had some other evolutionary purpose.

The “Facial Expression Program” is a term that refers to a large body of research pioneered by Paul Ekman (creator of the Facial Action Coding System) and Carroll Izard, which generally accepts a series of principes that can be summarized as follows:

  • There are seven, plus or minus one, “basic” emotions, which are found in every human group, regardless of culture. (i.e. joy, sadness, disgust, surprise, anger, fear)
  • These emotions have characteristic experiential qualities and a corresponding facial expression, which are also universal.
  • Humans universally translate these facial expressions as applying to the same basic emotions.
  • Culture sometimes imposes display rules, which can cause these emotions to be masked, although they are still detectable by high speed photography or electromyography (electrodes attached to a participant’s face measure the muscle movements).
  • Voluntary facial expressions can simulate spontaneous ones, but are deceptive and culturally conditioned.
  • Emotional state can be revealed through various methods of facial measurement.

This mindset about emotions was particularly prominent from the 1960s to the 1980s, and it still holds considerable influence today. However, researchers have started to question some of these fundamental propositions, particularly the idea of universality and the idea that facial expressions accurately reflect emotional state. Other researchers have gone back to Darwin’s original questions about how facial expressions evolved, what purpose they serve, and whether or not we can truly link their purpose to communication or emotion. These are all extremely valid questions, and cross-cultural psychology in particular is working to address them.

I now have a much better idea of the history and context of the subfield within which I will be researching this summer, and it is simultaneously exciting that there are still so many questions to be answered, and humbling to think that even after the work of so many great researchers before me, so many mysteries remain. I look forward to delving deeper into this topic in the coming weeks, and hope that I will be able to contribute even a small piece of insight to the controversies surrounding facial expression of emotion.


My main source for this blog post is the book “The Psychology of Facial Expression,” a compilation of essays by researchers in the field, edited by James A. Russell and José Miguel Fernández-Dols, jointly published by the Cambridge University Press and the Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in 1977. It is a very interesting and informative book, and I highly recommend it!


  1. Wow. Your effort in background research is impressive! I especially liked the bullet points. Great summary.

    I will wait for your next post. Good luck!

  2. inthomas says:

    Wow, I had no idea that so much research had already been done on facial expressions. It’s cool that you can tell what is going on in someone’s mind just my watching their facial movements.This project sounds really interesting. I hope it goes well.