Do humans have the same range of facial expressions?
A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. Every picture tells a story. The human face can be wonderfully expressive and can give the onlooker a sense of what you are thinking or feeling without the need for you to utter a word. To the enquiring mind the obvious question is whether there is a stock range of expressions for emotions or, putting it another way, do humans make the same facial expressions in response to the same emotions.
An interesting question, you might agree, and one which a graduate scientist at the University of Minnesota, one Carney Landis, applied his mind to in 1924. The starting point was to assemble a group of volunteers, most of whom came from Landis’ fellow graduate students. His idea was to submit the group to a range of situations which would evoke different emotions, ranging from joy to fear, and examine the facial expressions that each made. To make life easier for himself, he decided to divide the human face into a series of sections following the musculature and paint lines around each section. By taking a series of photographs he would be able to determine how each volunteer responded and which part of the face moved in response to any given stimulus.
Having developed the methodology, the experiment began. The key, obviously, was to assemble a range of stimuli that would provoke a strong reaction. So, rather like a bush tucker trial, the guinea pigs were asked to put their hands in a bucket of slimy frogs. Whilst this was going on, Landis was happily snapping away. They were asked to look at pornographic images, were subjected to electric shocks, smell ammonia. You get the picture.
All went swimmingly until Landis produced a live white rat on a tray and asked them to decapitate it. Even allowing for the fact that sensibilities around animal rights were not as advanced as they might now be, this bizarre request caused a bit of a stir amongst the volunteers. What was interesting, and perhaps the most significant outcome of the bizarre experiment although the import seemed to have passed Landis by, was that only a third of the volunteers actually refused to carry out his command. Had he pondered this phenomenon, he would have pre-empted Stanley Milgram’s equally disturbing experiments of 1963 into the extent that people would obey orders even if meant causing others harm. The students’ noble refusal to obey Landis didn’t spare the rats. Landis did the job for them.
The other two thirds, with some reluctance, set about butchering the rats. The trouble was that the executioner’s art is a rather skilled one, calling for a steady hand and steely determination, and most made a bit of a fist of it. According to Landis’ notes, “the effort and attempt to hurry usually resulted in a rather awkward and prolonged job of decapitation”. It is hard to imagine the scene of devastation as the rats suffered a slow and painful death. Perhaps Landis should have concentrated on looking at the expressions on the rodent’s faces.
And the result of this rather bizarre experiment? Try as he could, Landis could not see any correlation between an emotion and expression. It seems that people have a wide range of facial expressions to convey the same emotion. Still, it is good that we have cleared that one up.