Expression and empathy part 1: Why the long face?

Some thoughts on facial expression and empathy. I want to start by talking about solitary smiling. I have particularly in mind the so-called Duchenne smile: the genuine grin of delight that moves the eyes as well as the mouth, and which, evidence suggests, is difficult or even impossible to produce voluntarily. But other sorts of smile will also be relevant. Why the interest? To explain, we can take a quick detour through some theory.

On what was apparently long the dominant view of emotional expression, facial expressions are the causal result of occurrent mental states. Smiling, for example, is a form of human behaviour which results from the occurrence of feelings of happiness and the like. This sort of view can be traced back at least to Darwin. He opposed the idea that expressive behaviour arose because it played a communicative role. Instead, he thought, it was either the vestige of some earlier beneficial behaviour, or else the incidental result of other physiological processes.

Alun Fridlund proposes an alternative “ecological” conception of expression. On this conception, what matters is not the internal states of animals, but rather the pragmatic function of their behaviour. An animal bares its teeth to avoid conflict. Another makes a defensive gesture indicating the willingness and ability to flee, for just the same reason. That these animals may simultaneously experience fear or feelings of aggression is essentially irrelevant.

This is not just a dispute about the evolutionary origins of expression, about history: it concerns also the nature of the phenomenon. To see the crux of the dispute, consider what the anomalous cases, the cases particularly in need of explanation, are for each side. For the dominant view, the anomalous case is that of false expression of emotions. The theorist must think of the dissembling animal as exploiting pre-existing natural (and perhaps also, in part, conventional) connections in order to dissemble.

For the ecological view, by contrast, the contrast between veracity and dissembling is relatively unimportant. The interestingly anomalous case is that of the solitary expression of the emotions. Why do we smile in private? Fridlund postulates that we are imagining an audience, or alternatively treating ourselves as interactants (as we frequently do in inner monologue). Not a problem for the dominant view: the smile bursts forth in states of solitary happiness just as it does in public.

Evidence gathered by Fridlund suggests that smiles depend more on the subject’s degree of sociability than on intensity of feeling. We tend to smile more in company; what’s more, even in solitude, we smile more when other people are pertinent. For example, solitary subjects are more likely to smile at a stimulus (a film, say), if told that a friend is watching the same film in another room. We also smile much more when talking on the telephone than we otherwise do while alone.

Supposing facial expression to be essentially communicative in function, what sort of equipment do we need to be sensitive to it? I’ll take this up in the next post.

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