Shock and Fear: Cartoonish Expressions Appear Universal In Human Beings


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Angry cartoon expressions are recognized universally. Photo by atsoram

Think of your favorite cartoon series. Now imagine a scene with the character showing some form of emotion. Was it exaggerated greatly? Chances are, you would be able to identify that emotion without any dialogue behind it. New research article, from the University of Oregon and the University of British Columbia, shows that people can identify emotions correctly from facial expressions, even if they have never seen a cartoon show before.

Facial Expression and Body Language: Apes, Humans Share Similar Emotional Cues

Dr. Azim Shariff, lead writer of the article, examined several decades worth of studies on facial recognition and emotional responses. In the article entitled “What Are Emotions For?” Shariff states that emotions in humans evolved over time to be social cues to other humans. Similar emotions are found in apes, chimpanzees, and some monkeys, including pride and anger. These cues are thought to be a byproduct of nonverbal communication during our early evolutionary days.

The writers believe that fear and anger-based emotional faces developed first, as a way of protecting the species. Social expressions, such as happy faces and sadness, evolved as social groups became more complex.

Understanding Body Language: Social Roles Evolved With Emotional Responses

Along with apes, Shariff stated that certain rituals common in human beings are found in other animals, similar to birds sharing food with other birds. These rituals became the basis for emotional replies and responses, present in a variety of species.

Decoded Science asked Dr. Shariff about the ability to read body language, as our emotions have evolved. He stated,

Well, the idea that we’re suggesting here is that everyone can read the ritualized “body language” that comes from emotion expressions. In particular, we are the beneficiaries of evolved adaptations that grant us the ability to decode, at a very rapid and unconscious level, the communicative signal that is being sent by an emotion expression. Other forms of nonverbal cues that people give off can be more culturally specific, but we are suggesting that this is a core set of emotional responses that give off these universal cues that everyone can decipher.

The fact that across the world, people derive the same implicit meaning from emotion expressions (e.g. the pride expression implicitly conveying high social status) speaks to this universal human ability. 

Click to Read Page Two: Cartoon Faces and Cultural Surprises

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