New research suggests that common facial expressions — expressing things like happiness, sadness, disappointment, and achievement — may be innate, not learned. But managing our emotional expressions is likely learned. In a recent study, both blind and sighted athletes displayed similar facial expressions when they lost or won a competition. Winners sported the grin of a happy person, while losers looked sad or disgusted.
“The statistical correlation between the facial expressions of sighted and blind individuals was almost perfect,” Prof. David Matsumoto, the lead researcher in the study, said. “This suggests something genetically resident within us is the source of facial expressions of emotion.”
The researchers came to this conclusion by comparing photos from three different times — after a match, as the athletes received their medals, and then when they posed with their medals on the stand.
All three sets of photos of both blind and sighted athletes who competed in the athletic competition — judo — showed no significant differences.
“Losers pushed their lower lip up as if to control the emotion on their face and many produced social smiles,” Matsumoto said. “Individuals blind from birth could not have learned to control their emotions in this way through visual learning so there must be another mechanism.”
Investigators also looked for any differences in the facial expressions of the winners and losers, between blind and sighted athletes, and between athletes who had been born blind and those who had become blind later in life.
No significant differences were found between the groups — sighted and blind athletes made similar facial expressions when they lost and when they won. It also didn’t matter if they had been born blind or not, as all of the blind athletes made similar faces.
Because of those similarities, the researchers concluded that the universal emotional expressions that they saw may trace back through evolution “and that all humans, regardless of gender or culture, are born with this ability.”
But the researchers note that managing those emotional expressions — stifling a scowl or summoning up a polite smile — may be learned. But since even blind people learn them, that learning apparently doesn’t require observation.
The study appears in the January issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Source: San Francisco State University