By Beth Azar, Monitor on Psychology, January 2000

After 30 years of renewed interest in facial expression as a key clue to human emotions, frowns are appearing on critics’ faces. The face, they say, isn’t the mirror to emotions it’s been held out to be.

The use of facial expression for measuring people’s emotions has dominated psychology since the late 1960s when Paul Ekman, PhD, of the University of California, San Francisco and Carroll Izard, PhD, of the University of Delaware, reawakened the study of emotion by linking expressions to a group of basic emotions.

Many took that work to imply that facial expressions provided the key to people’s feelings. But in recent years the psychology literature has been sprinkled with hotly worded attacks by detractors who claim that there is no one-to-one correspondence between facial expressions and emotions. In fact, they argue, there’s no evidence to support a link between what appears on someone’s face and how they feel inside.

But this conflict masks some major areas of agreement, says Joseph Campos, PhD, of the University of California at Berkeley. Indeed, he says, “there is profound agreement that the face, along with the voice, body posture and hand gestures, forecast to outside observers what people will do next.”

The point of contention remains in whether the face also says something about a person’s internal state. Some, such as Izard, say, “Absolutely.” Detractors, such as Alan Fridlund, PhD, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, say an adamant “No.” And others, including Campos and Ekman, land somewhere in the middle. The face surely can provide important information about emotion, but it is only one of many tools and should never be used as a “gold standard” of emotion as some researchers, particularly those studying children, have tended to do.

“The face is a component [of emotion],” says Campos. “But to make it the center of study of the human being experiencing an emotion is like saying the only thing you need to study in a car is the transmission. Not that the transmission is unimportant, but it’s only part of an entire system.”

Entire article here.