John Gottman on Emotional Health

Research shows a vital connection between children’s emotional health and their academic performance. Retired University of Washington professor of psychology Dr. John Gottman is well known for his research on marriage.  After 14 years of studying 650 couples with the aid of videotape and sensors, Gottman needs only a half hour with a couple to predict with 90 percent accuracy whether they will stay married.

Gottman has also made important discoveries about young children, their emotional health, and early learning. Learning CurveOne study shows that in two thirds of relationships, couples had a big drop in happiness and both fighting and hostility increased, after the birth of their first child. This in turn affected their parenting. Parents, who are sensitive to their baby and its signals, have babies that are more confident and more secure, which leads them to learn better.

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What Your Smile May Say About Where You’re From

core valuesA new study finds that an individual’s use of facial expressions, such as smiles, is related to the migratory history of where they’re from. More specifically, the recent research suggests that if you come from a country of immigrants, you’re more likely to crack a friendly smile on the street.

As written by Chris Cesare for Science Magazince, Scientists have known for decades that societies have their own unwritten rules about when it’s appropriate to smile, frown, or get angry. These rules are part of a country’s “emotion culture,” the norms that influence how and when people express whether they’re pleased or upset. Researchers often study these differences geographically, finding that the United States and the West tend to be more expressive than China and the East. But those geographical studies overlook the important role migration played in shaping emotion culture, says Paula Niedenthal, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Niedenthal and her colleagues suspected that, over time, countries without many immigrants would agree on rules for how much emotion to show in certain situations. People in those countries might even suppress their true feelings so as not to upset the social pecking order. In Japan, for instance, subordinates use smiles around their bosses to hide feeling upset. For countries with a more diverse past, though, the story would be different. “What we’re talking about is a collision of differences in language and emotion culture,” Niedenthal says. People in these melting pots would need to beef up their facial expressions to overcome the language barrier.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers needed a way to measure the amount of migration a country has experienced. They used something called “historical heterogeneity”, which captures the history of a country’s migrations in a single number and represents the tally of the countries that have contributed more than a tiny percentage (about 0.1%) to the current population. For example, Canada scores a 63, which means that Canada’s current population has largely come from 63 different source countries over the past 500 years. By contrast, China and Japan both score 1.

The researchers compared these numbers with some reanalyzed data from an earlier study of emotional expression. In that work, more than 5000 participants from 32 countries filled out a survey that posed various emotional scenarios. For instance, it asked respondents to imagine being happy with a close friend in public or upset with a female professor in her office. It then asked the participants how they should respond, with options like “show more than you feel” and “hide your feelings by smiling.” When Niedenthal and her colleagues tallied the results, they found that countries with more migration also tended to be more expressive.

Then the team zeroed in on a particular kind of facial expression: the smile. They conducted a new study of 726 people in nine countries, including the United States, Japan, and France. Here, participants were again asked to complete a survey, which inquired what constituted a good reason for someone else to smile. There were options such as “is a happy person,” “wants to sell you something,” and “feels inferior to you.” For each reason to smile, the participants picked from among seven choices, from strongly disagree to strongly agree. The researchers compared the results for each country with their migration numbers. Countries with greater immigration over the past 500 years were more likely to interpret smiles as friendly gestures, whereas those with less migration thought smiles were related to the social hierarchy, the team reported online before print in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Past Blog: Facial Expressions are Innate, not Learned

A 2008 study conducted by Humintell Director Dr. David Matsumoto and Photographer Bob Willingham investigated whether or not facial expressions of emotion were innate or a product of cultural learning.

The study, which was the first of its kind, studied congenitally blind (blind from birth)  and sighted judo athletes at the 2004 Paralympic Games and the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.

Their journal article entitled “Spontaneous Facial Expressions of Emotion of Congenitally and Noncongenitally Blind Individuals” was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2009.

During the course of the study, more than 4,800 photographs were captured and analyzed, including images of athletes from 23 countries. According to the findings, there were “no differences between congenitally blind, noncongenitally blind, and sighted athletes, either on the level of individual facial actions or in facial emotion configurations”. This meant that the blind and sighted athletes produced the exact same facial expression, firing the exact same muscles at exactly the same time in similar situations.

For example, below are images of women who had just lost a medal match. The woman on the left is the non-sighted athlete and the woman on the right is the sighted athlete. As you can see, the expressions are both of sadness. The brows are drawn up and together in both pictures, indicating sadness.

These findings “provide compelling evidence that the production of spontaneous facial expressions of emotion is not dependent on observational learning but simultaneously demonstrates a learned component to the social management of expressions, even among blind individuals”.

In essence, facial expressions of emotion are hardwired into our genes and are not learned culturally.

“Losers pushed their lower lip up as if to control the emotion on their face and many produced social smiles,” Matsumoto said. “Individuals blind from birth could not have learned to control their emotions in this way through visual learning so there must be another mechanism. It could be that our emotions, and the systems to regulate them, are vestiges of our evolutionary ancestry. It’s possible that in response to negative emotions, humans have developed a system that closes the mouth so that they are prevented from yelling, biting or throwing insults”.


San Francisco State University (2008, December 30). Facial Expressions Of Emotion Are Innate, Not Learned. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 17, 2010, from­ /releases/2008/12/081229080859.htm

Children Unable to Tell Genuine from Faked Sadness

VieF010045AAs reported in Asian Scientist, recent research suggests that children as old as 12 have difficultly telling the difference between genuine and fake sadness from facial expressions.

The study that came out of the Australian National University was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

The study involved children and adults being shown pairs of images showing facial expressions. One depicted an expression of a genuinely-felt emotion and the other depicted the same person faking an expression of the same emotion. Participants were asked to decide which facial expression was ‘only pretend.’

For happy facial expressions, children could distinguish genuine from fake emotions to some extent. However, for sad facial expressions, the child participants had difficulty distinguishing between the two. For both happy and sad faces, children did not do as well as adults.

Researchers said that the results do not mean that children can never tell whether another person is feeling genuinely sad, because they might be able to do this using other information, such as body language or knowing what caused the emotion. But the results do show that, unlike adults, children are poor at doing this just by looking at a person’s face.

Lead researcher Dr. Amy Dawel of the ANU School of Psychology said this may affect children’s ability to build relationships, or leave them open to manipulation. “Being able to tell the difference between genuine and fake facial expressions is crucial to social interaction,” Dawel said. “If children are misinterpreting polite smiles as genuinely happy then they are not picking up important feedback on their own social behavior. They might think that other children find them funny, or want to make friends, when in fact they are only being polite.”

The researchers were also surprised children aged eight to 12 showed no improvement in their ability to identify genuine facial emotion. “There is absolutely no improvement across that period,” Dawel said. “This is a skill that develops quite late—some time during the teenage years. So, we are talking about typical kids entering high school and not yet having developed the subtle skills in face emotion recognition that adults take for granted.”

A Genuine Smile


A genuine smile is also known as a Duchenne smile, named after a French Neurophysiologist from the early 1800s. It occurs when the lip corners move up and the muscle around the eyes (orbicularis oculi) moves as well. Oftentimes you see wrinkles around a person’s eyes. This is often described as a “twinkling” or “sparkling” in the eyes.

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