I.3 The Influence of Emotions on Communication

While we think we are rational creatures, we are really driven by emotions, and masters in retroactively constructing rational explanations for our emotionally driven reactions. Researchers have defined emotions as strong feelings deriving from a person’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with other people, contrasting emotions as intuitive feelings with reasoning and knowledge. Emotions are perceived as mental states for the coordination of subsequent movement. Already Charles Darwin in his seminal work “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animal”, published in 1872, recognized their importance as evolutionary adaptations for communication and survival. Darwin’s key insight was that emotions are universal, which means that when looking at faces of people around the world, emotions such as fear or joy are recognized by all humans independent of race and ethnicity. Darwin also accepted that emotions are not restricted to humans, but are similarly shown by animals such as dogs, cats, horses, rats, and even bees. This view was ignored for most of the last century, the most respected behavioral scientists of the twentieth century such as famed psychologist B.F. Skinner considered animals as furry robots who reacted to an external stimulus with an identical response, while humans were seen as infinitely more complex. Today this perspective has been thoroughly revised, and in our own research, studying emotional responses of humans, dogs, and horses we found that emotional behavior of humans is similarly predictable to the behavior of other animals. The same machine learning algorithms make emotional responses to an external stimulus as foreseeable for dogs and horses as for humans.

Researchers still disagree what precisely emotions are and how they function. According to Richard Lazarus  an emotion is executed in three steps: First an individual conducts a cognitive appraisal, the individual assesses the event cognitively, which cues the emotion and decides on the response: is it anger, fear, or disgust. Second, physiological changes happen in the body of the individual, the cognitive reaction initiates biological alterations such as increased heart rate or pituitary adrenal response. Third, an action is executed, by the individual feeling the emotion and choosing how to react. However, the bodily response to an emotion, for example anger, can look different from one person to another. There will be a change in heartrate when an individual gets angry, however the heartrate might go up hugely for one angry individual, and go up just a bit for another angry individual, depending on their bodily makeup and peace of mind. Just being aware of my anger will reduce my anger . When an emotion is triggered, most of the time not much rational cognition is involved. When reacting to an external event, as described in “Thinking Fast and Slow” of Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman, the brain has two ways of responding, Kahneman calls them “system 1” – thinking fast, and “system 2” – thinking slow. “System 2” is rational, and takes time and conscious effort to come up with a solution. “System 1” is intuitive, and responds in fractions of a second. Computing the distance to the sun takes “system 2”. Jumping aside when a snake is crossing the path, or catching a ball, is clearly controlled by “system 1”. Deciding with what emotion to respond to an external event is a “system 1” task, it happens intuitively and automatically. However, the brain can be trained to a task which is initially executed rationally by “system 2”, but over time and after much practice becomes automatic and is done intuitively by “system 1”. For instance, multiplying five by five is drilled at elementary school until it becomes intuitive. This means that while an emotional response is a “system 1” task, with what emotion to respond for instance to a newspaper article about abortion can be relearned through extended conscious deliberation and exposure to new external influences. For instance, thirty years ago the public would respond with anger when seeing two men kissing, today many people in the Western world would most likely respond with surprise.

While psychologists in the last century assumed that personality characteristics were basically inherited properties of individuals constant over the life of the individual just like genes, more recently a more dynamic view of personality characteristics has evolved. Which emotion is triggered in response to a particular stimulus is dependent on personality characteristics and cultural factors. Personality traits and attitudes towards cultural factors can be relearned and unlearned over the lifetime of an individual. These personality characteristics will then decide what emotion will be triggered by “system 1”.

Psychologists use different categorizations of standardized emotions. One of the most popular categorizations is the Ekman framework, named after psychologist Paul Ekman. He defined six basic emotions: fear, anger, joy, sadness, disgust, and surprise. There are two similarly popular emotion frameworks, the first one defined by Robert Plutchik. His wheel of emotions includes eight basic emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy, separated in three levels of arousal, leading to a total of twenty-four emotions. His framework groups these twenty-four emotions into subcategories, based on eight stimulus events: threat, obstacle, potential mate, loss of valued person, group member, gruesome object, new territory, and sudden novel object. The third emotion framework, besides the Ekman and the Plutchik models, is the “circumplex model”. The circumplex model simply has two dimensions, valence and arousal. Valence goes from unpleasant to pleasant, arousal goes from low activation (sleepy, bored) to high activation (tense, alert). 

Darwin posited that emotions are universal, that is they are experienced by all cultures around the world the same way. This also means that the same facial expressions, independent of ethnicity, of being Asian, Caucasian, African or from other cultures reflect the same emotions. Today this view is challenged by psychologists, for instance Lisa Feldmann Barrett  argues that each individual, based on personal context and experience, will feel and name emotions differently. There are no universal body changes consistent with the experience of an emotional state. In her book Barret lists studies demonstrating that none of the three commonly assumed predictors of emotion – facial expression, physical change such as heart rate and blood pressure, and brain circuity – can be perceived with greater than 35% accuracy. For instance, both smiles and scowls can easily be misinterpreted. Famous musician Prince called the ecstatic facial expressions his band members were showing when playing in flow “ugly faces”, while smiles can as well be symptoms of social anxiety as of a joyful mood. Culture defines how somebody experiences an emotion, and culture is also strongly influenced by language. For example, people in different cultures will experience anger in a different way, dependent on the individual, and her or his culture. For instance, in German “anger” can be “Wut”, “Zorn”, “Verdruss”, or “Ärger”, which has very different connotations, which in English are all conflated as “anger”.

So what are the key emotions across different cultures? In a study published in Nature in 2020, millions of facial expressions were analyzed  using AI from six million videos coming from around the world, from different cultures, races, and ethnicities. To link facial expression and associated emotion, the researchers took the emotion labels from the textual description and the context of the movies, extracting the associated facial emotion expressions. They ended up with sixteen emotions, amusement, anger, awe, concentration, confusion, contempt, contentment, desire, disappointment, doubt, elation, interest, pain, sadness, surprise, and triumph. Through this process, they were also able to assign links between a context and associated emotions, for example “weight training” was positively associated with pain, and “team sports” with triumph. Some connections were also highly culture specific, for instance “wedding” showed positive correlation with surprise and disappointment only in Southeast Asia, while “soldier” only correlated with doubt in Africa. The conclusion from this analysis is that while simple frameworks like the Ekman, Plutchik, and circumplex model are useful for analysis, the emotional reality is much more complex, and dependent on an individual’s context, background and experiences.


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