Expressive Behavior

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Expressive Behavior


The term “expressive behavior” refers to those aspects of behavior which manifest motivational states. “Motivational state” is used here to cover emotional attitudes and moods, cognitive attitudes (attention, concentration), activation states (arousal, fatigue), and more-or-less permanent attitudes that are personality attributes.

The study of expressive behavior has a dual origin in psychodiagnostics (falsely attributed to Aristotle) and in rhetoric (Quintilian). Interest in art and, particularly, in the stage (e.g., Engel 1785) stimulated detailed descriptions of expressive movement. More recently, expressive behavior has been discussed in connection with the philosophical problem of knowing other minds (Bain 1859; Lipps 1905; Scheler 1913). At present, the main impetus for the investigation of expressive behavior stems from the study of social perception, emotion, and personality.

“Expressive behavior” is a somewhat misleading term. Many behaviors which are not to be classified as “expressions” still have expressive aspects, e.g., the “deliberate” or “determined” manner of performing actions; the “hesitant” or “emphatic” in-tonational patterns in speech. The term is misleading, again, since it might suggest an expressive intention or purpose on the part of the subject that in fact is not presupposed. Labeling some behavior as “expressive” does not imply anything about its function or purpose. Expression is not a specific category of behavior, but expressiveness is the result of a perspective on all behavior. Every behavior is expressive when viewed with respect to the motivational state suggested by it. The term “expressive behavior” is misleading, finally, in that it suggests the presence of something, an inner experience, which is expressed but exists distinct from its expression. This, again, is not necessarily the case. Some behavior is expressive without the subject’s experiencing the emotions suggested by his behavior, as in a theatrical performance or in an act of deceit. Actually, the investigation of the relationship of expressive behavior to inner states or other dispositions is one of the main tasks in this area.

Phenomena that are functionally quite different are usually classed as expressive behavior; they vary in the manner in which they manifest motivational states:

(a) In both expressive movements (movements of limbs, head, facial features, and body) and the manner of performing purposive actions, the movement pattern itself is expressive, that is, it manifests the motivational state. Expressive aspects of vocal behavior and visceral manifestations of emotion can be classed along with expressive movement.

(b) In expressive actions, the way in which the environment is treated, rather than the movement pattern itself, is expressive.

(c) Verbal-symbolic behavior is expressive to the extent that it evidences some motivational state of the speaker.

(d) The products of creative behavior, in contrast to the behavior pattern itself, are considered expressive. Professional dancing and singing can, of course, be classified under both (a) and (d).

Expressive movement–descriptive analysis. The study of expressive movement implies (1) carefully describing behavior patterns and (2) ascertaining their meaning, in terms of the subject’s introspective report, his earlier or subsequent behavior, or the stimulus situation; or in terms of independently assessed personality traits.

The traditional source for descriptive data on expressive movement is the theater. While posed expressions are still used as stimuli in experiments on recognition of expression, they present obvious and unnecessary difficulties for the analysis of expressive behavior as such. Spontaneous expressions can be collected systematically by exposing the subject to specific stimuli (sudden noises, sweet music, pain); by time sampling during standardized or experimentally varied conditions (stress, task failure); or by electrical brain stimulation (Hess 1962). For recording these movements, refined techniques are sometimes utilized, such as high-speed cinematography (Landis & Hunt 1939) or electromyography (Sainsbury 1955). Sometimes it has been feasible to obtain introspective reports as well (Frijda 1953). Some response patterns have been described in detail, such as the startle pattern (Landis & Hunt 1939) or animal rage patterns (Bard 1950). Correlational studies have been used to identify patterns of individual differences (e.g., Allport & Vernon 1933; for visceral response patterns, see Lacey et al. 1963). Many studies have established the existence of stable individual differences in single expressive traits, such as frequency of nervous movements (Sainsbury 1955) or muscular tension during stress (see Duffy 1962, chapter 11), or size and speed variables, such as size of writing, length, and speed of stride, and rate of speech, as used in the Allport and Vernon study (1933).

A somewhat different approach has been followed in a series of German studies that originated in the work of Piderit (1867). These studies try to describe the variables of expressive movement for various body areas (facial expression, Lersch 1932; general body movement, Strehle 1954; gait, Kietz 1956; gesture, Kiener 1962). They present a large number of hypotheses on personality attributes presumably revealed by the various expressive traits; interpretations are based upon impressions gained during psychodiagnostic sessions. There are no validation studies, however. In general, very little has been established on the relationship between expressive movement and personality, except for some group-comparison studies. For example, patients classified as neurotic or as anxious tend to manifest a higher habitual degree of muscular tension and more frequent nervous movements than normal or nonanxious controls (see Duffy 1962, chapter 11; Sainsbury 1955).

Specificity and meaning. Traditionally it is held that expressive movement expresses emotion; also, that for every linguistically distinguishable emotion there is a corresponding distinct expressive movement pattern. The existence of expressions of other aspects of personality presents difficulties for the first hypothesis. Experimental investigation disproves the second. Landis (1924) elicited spontaneous emotional reactions from a group of subjects. Comparison of these reactions with the subjects’ introspective reports revealed that no emotion invariably leads to the same expression in every person and at every moment. Recognition experiments, in which observers are presented with photographs or films showing facial or other expressions, indicate that interpretations of expression are quite often incorrect. Observers attach widely different labels to one and the same expression (see Woodworth & Schlosberg 1955, chapter 5).

The variety of interpretations for a given expression does not mean, however, that expression of emotion is highly ambiguous. Woodworth demonstrated (1938) that there was a high degree of agreement among observers when expressions were judged in terms of emotion groups rather than separate emotions; Schlosberg (1954) showed the same for judgment in terms of three dimensions– pleasantness-unpleasantness, attention-rejection, and level of activation–and demonstrated at the same time the equivalence of these dimension judgments to judgment in terms of emotion groups. These studies suggest that expression does not represent emotions as distinct and discontinuous states; it represents, rather, a set of continuous emotional dimensions. This conclusion is supported by high correlations between dimensional values and measurements of facial features (Frijda & Philipszoon 1963). Every emotion occupies some place in this multidimensional expression space. However, several different motivational states may occupy the same place; hence the confusion in recognition experiments. As yet there is still some uncertainty about the dimensions involved. One of Schlosberg’s dimensions, attention-rejection, seems superfluous in view of multidimensional scalings based upon similarity judgments (Abelson & Ser-mat 1962; Shepard 1962). On the other hand, the importance of additional dimensions is suggested by other studies (Frijda & Philipszoon 1963).

Expressive movement, then, appears to represent the person’s state as denned by these dimensions, whose psychological nature can be summarized as the person’s attitude, or his readiness to relate to his environment, and his state of activation. Expressive movement, consequently, cannot properly be said to represent emotion. It may manifest some aspect of emotion, emotion being defined by the type of situational determinant in addition to the attitude and the activation state (Frijda 1958; Schachter & Singer 1962). However, the attitude and activation state may instead be part of a cognitive, nonemotional attitude. They may also represent some habitual attitude or activation modus, in which case they constitute a personality trait.

Origin. In order to understand the origin and function of expressive movement, a distinction has to be made. Expressive movements which arise spontaneously out of the actual motivational state are called primary; expressions which are made more or less intentionally are called secondary. Secondary expressive behavior overlays and modifies the primary. People frequently exaggerate their spontaneous reactions for reasons of communication or social participation. Sometimes they produce expressive movements when no corresponding emotional attitude is experienced, as to give a social signal, to be polite, or to deceive. They also produce symbolic expressive movements–gestures of doubt, disbelief, denial, or approval–which serve linguistic functions, underlining or replacing verbal behavior.

Primary expressions seem to be unlearned. The evidence comes from different sources: developmental observations; data on generality over species (which in humans means ethnological evidence); and neuropsychological research [see INSTINCT].

Within the first few weeks of life a limited but still differentiated repertory of reactions can be observed: crying, generalized excitement, startle, orienting responses, quiet relaxation, and facial contortions typical of disgust (Malrieu 1960). Somewhat later, smiling appears. These expressions can be observed under conditions that make social learning unlikely: absence of social reinforcement (Dennis 1938); blindness; and even a combination of blindness and deafness (Thompson 1941). The blind manifest these expressions in situations that would call forth the same reactions in normal children.

Systematic cross-cultural research on expressive behavior has been rare since 1867, when Darwin sent a questionnaire to informants around the world. Yet, from scattered reports the generalization seems warranted that the same primary expressive patterns are present in every culture, where they indicate the same motivational states; or, rather, that everywhere they appear at least with this common meaning. Laughter is used everywhere to express joy, even if occasionally it may express other things as well and even if joy occasionally is expressed differently.

Some expressive reactions–those considered indicative of rage, fear, or attention–have been evoked in animals by midbrain stimulation (Hess 1962); laughter, smiling, and weeping occur in human subjects who have cerebral lesions or who are subjected to electrical stimulation in the thalamic region (Hassler & Riechert 1961). Still, these data may be interpreted (e.g., by Hess) as the evocation of emotional impulses as such, and these impulses, of course, might also utilize learned behaviors.

Social determinants. The inborn forms of expressive behavior are supplemented by and modified by social learning. To what extent this is the case has been demonstrated by Efron’s (1941) comparison of gestural behavior of Jews and Italians in New York City. Jews and Italians who have been minimally acculturated to the general American way of life possess quite different gestural habits, although both gesticulate considerably more than the average American. Among more acculturated groups these differences largely disappear. The findings concerning cultural differences, however, in no way conflict with the notion of universal human expressive patterns with fixed meanings.

The influence of culture on expression can be summarized as follows.

(a) Culture determines to what extent emotional impulses are shown and, consequently, how frequent and pronounced expressive behavior is. The extent to which expressive behavior is encouraged is culturally determined.

(b) Culture may determine under what conditions certain expressions are allowed or prescribed. Weeping by men is, in Western culture, permitted only under special circumstances; in prerevolutionary China the amount of weeping when a relative died was carefully graded by a codex, according to the closeness of the relationship (Granet 1922).

(c) There are cultural differences with regard to the events that elicit given emotional reactions.

In these cases there is not so much difference in expressive behavior as in emotional behavior.

(d) Certain more-or-less general motor habits–manner of walking or sitting, gestural accompaniment of speech, intonement of speech–may be culturally determined. Such habits can be quite typical for people of a given culture (Efron 1941; LaBarre 1947). They may reflect some culturally determined mental attitude or they may be the expression of nothing but a cultural-movement norm.

(e) Secondary expressive movements, particularly those with linguistic meanings, are based upon cultural conventions: the gestures for “yes” and “no” are well-known examples.

Nature of expressive movement. Why should there be expressive movement, and why does it take a particular form? Several explanatory principles have been adduced, which are all supported by some empirical evidence.

(a) Expressive behavior is either adaptive behavior or conditioned but originally adaptive behavior. The addition of “originally adaptive” is obviously needed, since people make “disgusted” faces, possibly useful for getting rid of bad-tasting substances, when they hear morally disgusting stories. It seems certain that much in expressive movement is adaptive not only with regard to our forebears, as Darwin would have it, but here and now. Facial expressions of fear often form part, or the beginning, of general protective responses. Expressive movement, if it is adaptive, is so in a rather special way: not by modifying the environment, but by modifying the organism’s relationship to his environment, through approach and withdrawal tendencies and through increase or decrease of sensory readiness of different kinds. To be sure, expression may sometimes be adaptive in only a subjective way–for instance, when a child tries to hide from people’s glances by holding its hands before its face. To the extent that expressive movement is adaptive, it is connected to the motivational states in a quite intimate and intrinsic manner, since motives are by definition tendencies for establishing or destroying certain kinds of relationships. Primary expressive movement, according to this view, is the execution of behavior tendencies that define or partly define emotions and other motivational states.

(b) Expressive behavior is the direct manifestation of emotional (or other) activation. Drowsiness, energy, joy, and alertness refer to hardly more than quantitative variations of activation; the corresponding expressive movements are indeed mainly different degrees of generalized muscular activity, as correlation studies indicate (Frijda & Philipszoon 1963). In addition, expressive behavior embodies the degree of activity control. When emotions disrupt orientation and planning, behavior becomes disorganized and is, consequently, “expressive” of the disrupted state. In this reformulation of Darwin’s “irradiation principle,” the expressive components again are connected to the emotional impulses in no fortuitous manner. The expressive components are the consequences of the motivational impulses.

(c) Expressive movement might be communicative behavior either instinctively, by means of hereditary patterns, or intentionally, by means of conventional symbols. There is ethological evidence for instinctiveness in animal mating ceremonies or warning calls but little evidence to support or suggest instinctiveness in human expression, except, perhaps, the crying of the infant. Voluntary communicative expression is, of course, evident in verbal behavior and in secondary expressive movement. Primary expressions are rapidly utilized for communication, as is notable in the development of infant crying.

(d) Expressive movement might be a release phenomenon, serving to discharge emotional tensions. Introspectively, expressing emotions often gives relief. Freeman and Pathman (1942) found that experimentally induced emotional tension dissipated more rapidly in subjects manifesting much restless behavior than in those manifesting little. The fact that there is tension discharge does not, of course, imply that this is the raison d’être for the discharging behavior. The explanation may hold, however, for those nervous movements which arise during emotional stress or conflict (“autistic gestures,” Krout 1935), such as scratching, rubbing the nose, nail-biting, etc.

The foregoing principles seem to account for most expressive movement; they seem to apply equally well to extralinguistic vocal expression. There are two important exceptions, however. Laughter and weeping do not seem to allow of any interpretation in terms of past or present adaptive movement, although such an interpretation was tried by Darwin; they cannot be smoothly interpreted as activation modi or mere consequences of loss of activity control; and their release function does not explain their form either. As yet, laughter and weeping are riddles of human behavior.

Expressive actions. Every human activity indicates some attitude and is thereby expressive, even if only of unemotional matter-of-factness. This holds particularly for choice behavior–choice of interests, of mates, of possessions, of clothing, etc. Activities which demand special mention, however, are those that are clearly objectively useless and clearly motivated by some sort of emotional excitement–a child’s hiding under its mother’s skirt, banging on the table, tearing its clothes, etc. In part these are what Lewin (1927) called field actions, which try to change the relationship with the environment. In part they have the distinct function of releasing emotional tensions which cannot find their outlet in a more proper, more adequate way. Little systematic study has been made of these phenomena notwithstanding their social importance, which is shown by the behavior of youthful audiences.

Verbal-symbolic behavior. Verbal-symbolic behavior is expressive, of course, primarily in that the subject desires to communicate his feelings, attitudes, or ideas. There is little relationship between a definition of expressive behavior that covers these phenomena and one that is focused upon expressive movement.

Expressive creative behavior. Creative behavior can justifiably be called expressive: its products stem from some drive to structure and shape. It is primarily this drive, which may get its energy from various sources, which art expresses. Artistic production may also, occasionally, serve the purpose of communication of feelings or ideas. Artistic products are frequently expressive, moreover, in the sense in which this term is primarily used here. Paintings, music, and poetry appear invested with emotional meanings for the spectator; they evidence motivational states. Still, there is an important distinction which separates artistic production from the execution of expressive movements. Functionally, both belong to entirely different classes of phenomena. Expressive movement is a direct manifestation of tendencies inherent in the emotional impulse. Expression in art is, as Langer (1942) emphasized, a representation of some motivational state in the language of the particular artistic mode–pictorial, musical, etc. It is a symbol of a motivational state that need not even be actually experienced at the time of creation. In the fact of its being a representation resides an effect, and possibly a function, of artistic production: in the creative process emotional impulses or experiences become structured, and this may facilitate coming to grips with them. Sometimes artistic products may be pervaded by traces of primary expressive movement: this is clearest in dancing and singing, but it is also true of painting and of some aspects of writing style. Yet the intention to create shape or structure in a conventional symbol system–even if the convention is peculiar to the individual artist–makes this class of phenomena irreducible to other kinds of expressive behavior.


[Directly related is the entryEMOTION. Other relevant material may be found inATTENTION; CREATIVITY; SYMPATHY AND EMPATHY; TRAITS.]


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