Innate and Universal Facial Expressions: Evidence from Developmental and Cross-Cultural Research

‘Innate and Universal Facial Expressions: Evidence from Developmental and Cross-Cultural Research’

This paper presents an assessment of the methodology, results and conclusions of Carroll Izard’s article “Innate and universal facial expressions: Evidence from developmental and cross-cultural research” as published in the Psychological Bulletin.

The primary hypothesis being explored by Izard (1994) is whether emotions are universally recognized from facial expressions. The question being answered is whether certain facial expressions, such as a smile, are signals of specific emotion feeling, such as joy, and whether all people, regardless of their cultural and language backgrounds can identify this connection. This is a valid hypothesis because it tests two possible sides of an argument. Whereas some critics believe that expressions that appear on people’s faces communicate their emotions, others believe that people can pose facial expressions that do not match their emotions.

Izard (1994) embarked on the study of universality in facial expressions and emotion using cross-cultural methodology. Cross-cultural methodology is appropriate for such a study as it aims to determine validity when the link between emotions and feeling is exported to various cultural contexts. The strength of the method is in enhancing the audience understanding of cultural aspects that are related to psychology. Weaknesses of the method include the possibility of the researcher to misunderstand different cultural issues. Thus, the researcher should be mindful of the likelihood of inadequately defining or measuring cultural factors and psychological phenomenon, leading to the erroneous analysis of data and drawing faulty conclusions about the a cultural character of psychology. For example, while conducting an observation on emotions, a researcher may label a crying person as unhappy, while in reality, happiness is expressed thorough crying in the person’s culture.

The design used in the study was forced choice response format. This design adequately addressed the hypothesis as it involved the participants being given photographs of faces portraying different emotions and they had to pick from a multiple choice list, the expression that a face image portrayed. The aspect of universality was determined by naturalistic observation and comparing responses from different cultural contexts, which were two sets of French female students. The independent variables were eight emotion categories (interest, joy, surprise, sadness, anger, disgust/contempt, fear, and shyness/shame) while the dependent variable was the French female students cultural group. The researcher used instrument based meta-analysis for data analysis and this was appropriate for the research question as it focused on specific testing of the universality hypothesis.

The study strongly deals with potential confound particularly the semantic attribution to the expression-feeling link which Izard (1994) criticizes as unnecessary while dealing with the universality hypothesis, as had been done by another researcher- Russell. Gestures and their meaning to various cultures are confounding variables that were not accounted for in the paper. Gestures can modify the expression-feeling link, depending on one’s culture. The results support Izard’s (1994) conclusion by showing the evidence that there is innateness and universality of basic emotions such as happiness and sadness and all human beings are capable of recognizing such expressions thus showing the possibility of genetic pre-programming.

Generally, the paper is well written and shows exhaustive research on the subject of facial expressions and its link to emotions. The paper presents knowledge in understanding why some facial expressions are universal, and even for the modified ones, the reason is based on adaptive psychology, to suit one’s social sphere.


Izard, C., E. (1994). Innate and universal facial expressions: Evidence from developmental           and cross-cultural research. Psychological Bulletin, 115(2), 288-299.


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