Emotion in Psychology - Darwin

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The Darwinian perspective is over a hundred years old and follows along Darwin’s natural selection theory of evolution. Darwin believed emotions and the displays or expressions that are associated with them are functions of evolution, that they once served survival-related purposes. Back when humans huddled in caves to avoid getting eaten, it was probably pretty handy when the hair on the back of their heads stood up indicating danger. There is also evidence that universal facial expressions exist for what are considered to be the “fundamental” emotions, namely happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, and surprise. So someone in Timbuktu or Tokyo or San Diego would all recognize that a smile tends to mean happiness.

According to research started by Ekman and Friesen in 1971, even though there are universal facial expressions, the rules for displaying emotions can vary depending on cultural or learned reasons to alter or suppress emotional expressions. For example, if a child is raised in an environment where sadness or anger are discouraged then that child may learn to suppress the expressions of these emotions (e.g. the child may learn to not cry when hurt or sad).

Some people seem to be more sensitive to situational cues and may be more likely to alter their emotional expressions than others. People may alter expression to avoid perceived negative consequences or to “act appropriately” for a given situation. If an individual learns to suppress certain emotions all together the energy of the unexpressed experiences can buildup, wreaking havoc on their system.

When working with clients, watch for those bits of self-editing that occur when a client alters behavior based on their display rules and try to recognize the situational cues both you and the client project. You may not know what the cue triggers, but with practice you will learn to recognize when the editing occurs. These non-verbal communications are full of valuable information.