There is a huge amount of variation and diversity in the customs, rituals and behaviours across the many different cultures in the world. The importance of an understanding of these differences was all too publically highlighted in an incident in Brazil when president Nixon of the United States was participating in a diplomatic speech. At one point, he gestured the western “all ok” sign (making a ring with the thumb and index finger), which in South America happens to mean “I want sex with you”. In France, this gesture means zero and in Japan money. And there are many other examples – just do a Google search for communicating with gestures.
In the 1970s Paul Ekman and a team of psychologists set off across the world to investigate variations in facial expressions across different cultures, and to find out if there were any that were common to all races.
The purpose of the study was to ‘cut through’ all the variations that had developed as part of the different cultural traditions, and establish if there were any evolutionary roots that were the starting points on which this diversity was build.
What Ekman and his colleagues found was that there are six universally understood facial expressions which happened to express six basic emotional states:-
The interesting fact about these six basic facial expressions is that they are ‘hard wired’ in the brain. That is, we are all born with the ability to operate all the right muscles in our faces in exactly the right way to express each of these emotional feelings. And we are born with the ability to recognise these facial expressions in others. The so-called preoperational stage of child development, between 2 and 7 years old, is the time during which children develop a theory of mind (see Consciousness and Emotions). And of course, this is exactly what this facial recognition is all about!
Can you recognise the 6 basic emotional states in these women?