Review of "Emotions Revealed"

By Paul Ekman
Owl Books, 2003
Review by Sarah Ben Daoud on Jun 28th 2004
Emotions Revealed

In his most recent book, Emotions revealed: recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life, Paul Ekman examines the uniqueness of each emotional experience, trying to fit those recent investigations with general conclusions on what he dubbed "basic emotions".

By way of introduction, Ekman exposes research and collaborations that have allowed him to establish that there are seven emotions, each associated with a distinct, universally recognizable, facial expression: sadness, anger, surprise, fear, disgust, contempt and happiness. He has also built a general framework: every sensory organ provides inputs to the automatic-appraising mechanisms in the brain -- called "autoappraisers" -- that are continuously scanning the world for the variations that allow some triggers -- called "themes" -- to become quickly interpreted. "Themes" are given or selected over the course of evolution and only their variations and elaborations are learned. The difference between "species-constant learning" explanations and "evolution-based" explanations of universal themes is function of when specific things happen.

According to this framework, Ekman describes universal situations that allow detecting when emotions are triggered and accessible: to become aware of the operation of the autoappraisers or of the reflective appraisal that clicks on them, to remember or to imagine an emotional experience, to talk about a past emotional event, to empathize or to be instructed by others, to violate the social norms or to voluntarily assume the appearance of emotion. Whereas changes in terms of what to become emotional about (and how this takes place) depend on:

·        The "closeness" to the evolved "theme": the closer the learned trigger is to the unlearned theme, the harder it will be to decrease its power;

·        The resemblance between the current instance of the triggering event and the original situation;

·        How early the trigger was learned in a person's life: the earlier the trigger was learned, the harder it will be to weaken it;

·        The initial emotional charge: the stronger the emotions that were experienced when the trigger was first learned, the harder it will be to weaken its impact;

·        The frequency of the experience: the repetitive occurrence of highly emotionally charged episode during a short period of time;

·        The affective style of the individuals: speed and stretch of emotional responses.

  Despite these universals, Ekman explains that one emotion has a unique "affect program" that is a single story, pattern of sensation and signal. Behavioral management, reappraisal of what is occurring, interruption or reduction of the facial and vocal signal has to focus on the involuntary emotional responses, and does so by being acquainted or "attentive" to sensations during an emotional episode. The last five chapters present information on universal triggers, descriptions of emotion's expression in us and in others and discussions about using or not information from the expression of each of the five themes: sadness and agony, anger, surprise and fear, disgust and contempt, and enjoyable emotions.

Sadness and agony can be triggered by different types of losses, by a very intense joy that overwhelms the emotion system, by depression or hopelessness and, even if it is not deliberately intended to do so, the expressions of sadness and agony can cause others to feel concern. As it is not certain whether a person wants others to know how he or she is feeling, Ekman advises us to be aware of when the expression of sadness occurs in others (during a conversation or before) and to be aware of intrusiveness and lack of concern when we express sympathy.

Anger is triggered by interference with intentions and goals, disappointment or frustration, depending on an irritable mood or hostile personality. There may often be fear before, during or after anger. Ekman argues about different kinds of violence and ways to temper it. Discussion with angry individuals depends on the specifics of the situation and persons.

Surprise is triggered by unexpected events whereas fear can be triggered by sudden events as well as frightening thoughts or memories. Surprise and fear are usually negative emotions that can be positive in the sense that some people enjoy them. Reactions of comfort or of fear depend on the intensity of fear or surprise expression detected in others and also on the situation.

Disgust is often triggered by the thought of how something repulsive might smell but universal triggers of disgust are bodily products. Contempt is related but different from disgust and often involves an element of condescension toward the object of contempt. Ekman advises trying to know the target of disgust or contempt through sympathizing or talking with the one experiencing those emotions before any reaction.

There are more than a dozen enjoyable emotions: enjoyment, happiness, sensory pleasure, amusement, contentment, excitement, relief, wonder, ecstasy, "fiero", "naches", elevation, gratitude, or "schadenfreude", all triggered either by reunion with persons, sexual intercourse, subjective well-being, personality traits or attitudes. As using information from enjoyable expressions rarely creates a problem, Ekman doesn't develop the point.

The five chapters contain descriptions designed to help us recognize each emotion in us by remembering an event in the past or a characteristic situation and/or by watching a picture where an emotion is expressed while becoming attentive to our physiological feedback and facial expression in a mirror. Using his daughter's picture in order to describe partial -- upper and lower part -- facial expressions of each emotion, Ekman distinguishes eyes, eyelid, mouth, jaw and lip positions and movements in order to distinguish and recognize each emotional "theme". The book also contains a final test with twelve pictures to improve readers' recognition.

Compiling more than forty years of investigations, experiments and results from psychology, psychiatry or sociology, with new picture descriptions, Ekman plans to explain how emotions influence us and how to recognize their symptoms in ourselves and others in order to help readers to better understand and improve their emotional life. It is observable that even if there are universals about emotions, there are particulars concerning recognition and expressiveness that change basics.


© 2004 Sarah Ben Daoud


Sarah Ben Daoud is a Ph D student at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (France) and at Université de Montréal (Quebec), on cognitive science and philosophy with a focus on emotion. p>