Facial Expression

Facial expression is a subject of study within psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology and ethnomethodology, as well as Human Computer Interaction (HCI). Facial expression is of particular interest within the field of emotion studies, for example when and how people are able to identify facial expressions linked to particular emotional states by attending to dimensions of facial expression including direction of gaze, head movement, face-touching, lip and eye position and so on. Within HCI facial expression is a key aspect within the design of avatars and virtual agents.

In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin (1872) linked facial expressions to evolution and argued that some facial expressions are biologically created. Illustrations for Darwin’s book suggest that the facial expressions for joy, grief and contempt have not changed for over 125 years.

Paul Ekman set out to test whether facial expressions are inborn or learned (e.g. via mass communication) and studied facial expressions in preliterate community in New Guinea. Ekman concluded that the basic facial expressions of these indigenous people were similar to and as easily recognisable as those of ‘westerners’. He suggested that the emotions of happiness, sadness, surprise, anger, disgust and contempt were possibly universally represented/recognised through facial expressions, although anger and disgust were easily confused.

Apart from the biological influences, it is important to acknowledge the role of upbringing and the environment in producing and deciphering facial expressions, although facial expressions may be less culture-specific than some hand gestures. It is also important to remember that we seldom ‘read’ human emotions in isolation from other contextual features. In isolation, facial expressions can be quite vague. For example, the same facial expression can signal fear and excitement. Smiling can signal any of the following functions/emotions: pleasure, humour, ridicule, friendliness, doubt, acceptance, equality, superiority, subordination, and so on.

Facial expressions and head movements play an important role in interaction management through a variety of facial gestures, which are similar to hand gestures. They are synchronised with speech and can be used as illustrators to reinforce the rhythmic organisation of speech (e.g. blinking), or to add emphasis to the contents of talk. For example, speaking of experiencing a particular emotion, the speaker may recreate a suitable facial expression. Some facial expressions may appear independently of speech, e.g. eyebrow flash, tongue showing, while others function as emblematic or iconic gestures, e.g. ‘tongue-in-cheek’.

Within Multimodality facial expression is thought of as a set of modal resources bundled up within notions of embodiment and modes including gaze, body posture etc.

The work of Goffman is particularly influential, notably from his seminal work ‘The presentation of the self in everyday life’ (1959), which explores presentation and introduces the concept of ‘front’ which he uses to refer to the expressive equipment employed intentionally or unwittingly by a person during a ‘performance’ that is the activity over a period of time in the presence of a particular set of observers.  Along with the setting of the interaction – the scenic parts of expressive equipment Goffman uses the term ‘personal front’ to refer to other items of expressive equipment that are intimately identifiable with the person themselves and among size, looks, clothes, posture and gestures he includes facial expression. He sees facial expression as a mobile and transitory ‘sign vehicle’ (what in multimodal terms is a mode). In his later seminal work Gender Advertisements (1976) Goffman draws attention to the ways in which different kinds of smiles, ‘unseriousness’, covering the face, turning away of gaze, head and eye aversion, and expressions of ‘mentally drifting’ signal degrees of power and knowledge, threat and availability.

Kress and van Leeuwen (Kress, G. and T. van Leeuwen. 1996. Reading Images: Grammar of Visual Design. London: Routledge. ) considered the role of the gaze in visual representations of social actors. They distinguish between demand and offer images. The former involves the represented social actor ‘looking’ at the viewer. Demand images signify direct address through gaze. They acknowledge the viewer, create a relationship between the represented social actor and the viewer, and require a symbolic or emotional response from the viewer.

In offer images, represented social actors avert their gaze from the viewer; no response is expected and the viewer acts as a voyeur. In offer images the direction of the gaze of the represented social actor can be interpreted further. For example, in his analysis of music cd covers, Machin (2010) noted how the artist’s looking off-frame invites the viewer to guess what the subject is thinking while direction of the gaze connotes specific moods or emotions:

Looking up: optimistic and up-beat.

Looking down:  melancholic and depressed

Looking directly outward: dealing with issues straight on

Editor: Sara Price
Other contributor: Adam Jaworski

Key References
Bruce, V. and Young, A. (1998)
In the Eye of the Beholder: The Science of Face Perception
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ekman, P. and Friesen, W.V. (1975)
Unmasking the Face
Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Machin, D. (2010)
Analysing Popular Music: Image, Sound, Text
Los Angeles: Sage

One response to “Facial Expression

  1. facial expressions are more powerful modes of communcation making it more strong,convincing.persuasive and effective appeal to convey the message to the receiver.It is the basic human trait which makes a distinctive difference between mechanical messege and human communication.

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