By Alan Crawley
From 15 to 18th April of 2021 the Society for Affective Science (SAS) organized their 8th annual conference being this their first time with online modality. The numbers of this event are astonishing: more than 450 abstract papers were received, with at least 35 prerecorded presentations and more than 800 inscribed participants from all around the globe.
With a very clear academically inclined structure, researchers shared and explained to other researchers and (advanced) students: what they are working on, the methodology of their research, what are the results, possible contributions for future studies (a lot), and practical applications (not so much).
The amount of content was staggering, with a nonstop 24 schedule. From Tuesday to Friday, you could connect to the online platform whenever at 5 am or 5 pm and you would have a couple of possible options: thematic flash talks, pseudo ted talks presentations, open discussion events, methodological presentations, symposiums, preconference’s and of course, prerecorded presentations. With this in mind, I am pretty sure that no one outside the organizer committee could have seen all the material of the presentations, being this double edge: one could choose a considerable quantity of topics that most suited their preference but it was nearly impossible to see all of the material presented.
The topics attain a wide range of themes, allowing assistants to cherry-pick the content that most suited their preference. The repertoire of presentations was broad enough to satisfy the curiosity of the different aspects of affects. A couple of major topics were addressed: emotion regulation, affect experience and expression, clinical and mental health, social interactions, the impact of the pandemic on affect and relationships, affective computing, cognition, and development. Also, assistants could decide between assisting to the presentation of important researchers in the field such as Lisa Feldman Barret, Ralph Adolphs, Paula Niedenthal, Dacher Keltner, Lasana Harris, and more.
is a university distinguished professor at Northeastern University with appointments at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Harvard Medical School. Her lab is developing a systems-level model of brain and body mechanisms to unify human affect, emotion, motivation, cognition and action. She takes a multidisciplinary approach, incorporating methods and concepts from a range of disciplines, including psychology, neuroscience, physiology, anthropology, philosophy, linguistics, evolutionary and developmental biology, computer science, engineering and the history of science. She is the recipient of a NIH Director’s Pioneer Award for transformative research, the Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Association for Psychological Science (APS), and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association (APA). She is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of Canada, and a number of other honorific societies. She is also a former president of the APS. She has testified before the US Congress, is the Chief Science Officer for the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at MGH, and actively engages in informal science education for the public via popular books, articles and public lectures.
Paula received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and was on the faculty of the departments of Psychology at Johns Hopkins University and Indiana University. She was a member of the National Centre for Scientific Research in France for more than a decade and is now the Howard Leventhal Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Her areas of research include representational models of emotion, the social functions of emotion expression, socio-ecological shapers of emotion culture, and the physiological basis of social tolerance. Paula is past president of the Society for Affective Science (SAS) and is lead author of Psychology of Emotion (2017).
Ph.D., is the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Dacher is the host of the Greater Good Science Center’s award-winning podcast, The Science of Happiness and is a co-instructor of the GGSC’s popular online course of the same name.
He is also the best-selling author of The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence and Born to Be Good, and a co-editor of The Compassionate Instinct.
I think three points must be addressed as a summary of this event. These are 1) brief recollection of scientific data, 2) the zeitgeist of the affect community, and 3) the pros and cons of virtuality.
1) Being my personal preference Nonverbal Communication, let me share with you some interesting data presented at the event on this.
With a birdlike watch, the content of research was divided between facial expression, postures, the impact of pandemics on nonverbal communication, the role of nonverbal behavior in sports, synchrony, smiles, crying, and pain expression.
There were at least two tendencies that deserve our attention: one of the interesting things is that besides there were (as usual) more presentations on facial expressions (of emotions) than another nonverbal channel, there is an increasing interest in postures in affective communication. This is a result based on the cumulative acceptance that facial expressions may be ambiguous in some scenarios and instances, like when the expression is very intense (Hassin et al., 2013). In two different studies from different labs, researchers found that in naturalistic scenarios, like tennis players at a grand slam and with volunteers jumping of a 10mt trampoline, judges could better assess the person’s feelings only with the posture (without face) better than with just the face. Of course, precision increases when body and face are both available, and even better if seen the dynamic movement rather than static photographs.
Regarding the pandemic, it has been studied quite thoroughly the impact of masks in social interaction. What has been found is coherent between studies. When people wear masks that block visually their lower face, other people: fail more at identifying their facial expression of emotions, tend to confuse more between emotions, need more time to infer emotion, it’s probably more cognitive taxing, confidence in emotion attribution precision decreases and perceive those expressions as less intense. Basically, the mask is quite an obstacle for the interpersonal communication of emotions in many ways.
Two very interesting topics received considerable attention. The first one is the universal signal of affiliation, the smile. One interesting research led by Sarah Pressman investigated the influence of the Duchenne smile, on heart rate and pain self-perception. It has been found that the simultaneous bilateral activation of the facial actions of the zygomatic major (action unit 12) and orbicularis oculi (action unit 6) has a strong effect on both of them. The performance of Duchenne smile, usually wrongly known as the “real” smile, while in psychological distress and physical pain reduces heart rate. In the second study, participants that make this smile prior to and during injection, decreased up to 40% perception of pain before, during, and after receiving it. It is proposed that the Duchenne smiles are a behavioral tool to self-regulate negative arousal and in several cases, it has nothing to do with positive feelings, as can be seen when we smile during negative situations like feeling embarrassment, pain, concern, guilt, and else.
The second topic that has been of intensive interest in the last two decades is the one of synchrony, how people coordinated their nonverbal behavior during interactions either by form, time, or both. Adrienne Wood recorded and analyzed 322 dyadic interactions and found that synchrony increased when the perception of similarity decreased. This interesting result suggests that behavioral synchrony may work in two interesting ways: first, research till now shows that increased synchrony correlates with increased liking (Hove & Risen, 2009), and secondly, this study suggests that the synchrony may also work to attenuate dissimilarities and help smooth interaction with people we consider quite different from us.
2) I do not feel competent as to evaluate the state of the art of the affective science literature, but what I can do here is to make my assessment of what is being addressed currently in the scientific arena based on the reports of the congress, and mostly inclined what has been shown concerning emotional expression and regulation.
Regarding the study of emotions, Dacher Keltner’s presentation argued one the importance of re-adapting traditional theories to current knowledge, like Basic Emotion Theory (BET). He supports the idea that we should leave behind the simplistic assumption of just 5,6 or 7 basic emotions, as was stated by Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman during the XX century, and to consider the new advances his colleagues, such as Alan Cowen and Daniel T. Cordaro, and he did in the past decade. In this sense, researchers must consider at least 28 discrete emotions (Cowen & Keltner, 2020) and a minimum of 16 different facial expressions of emotions (Cowen et al., in press). This new “atlas” of emotions may change the way we understand social interactions. Not least important, he urges to re-emphasize the social function and meaning of these emotions.
Another point to be mentioned is the different grades of focus that distinct emotions are receiving. Some researchers pointed out that usually negative emotions have been the most studied. This observation comes with the proposal of a refreshed emphasis on the positive ones. The core one seems to be love. In a presentation, Michelle Shiota showed that globally, when people talk about loving others it is widely consensual that this feeling is directed toward a couple, and if not, it’s almost always related to close people. Another positive affect that was mentioned in two different presentations was awe, which has a positive valence in western culture but in eastern culture, it is perceived as a mixed emotion. What seems more important about it is: awe may act as a buffer against negative experience and it does promote prosociality because it reduces the tendency to center in oneself.
It seems reasonable that the different subtlety of happiness, joy, enthusiasm, and other positive experiences will receive more study. Also, it does seem a tradition that the impact of negative emotions in health was a classic endeavor for study, but at glance, it seems a possibility that an increasing interest in the positive impact of the positive ones and the proper emotional regulation strategies may bring new discoveries and maybe even more important, practical suggestions.
One important issue is the methodological approach to the study of nonverbal communication. Three important things are happening: there’s a popular recognition but still little application on the passage from studying static facial or posture expression towards dynamic actions. The exodus of the portrayal paradigm has begun but since it’s so much easier to apply in research, due to the vast number of databases and instruments, it’s going to pass time before a big proportion of researchers turn to the dynamic approach.
Having said that, there is no doubt that facial expressions have been the most studied aspect of nonverbal communication (Plusquellec & Denault, 2018). Till now, these facial gestures have been systematically connected to emotions, but there are a few indications that this trend may broaden since it seems that researchers are hugging less emotionally inclined theories, like the Behavioral Ecological View (BECV) promoted by Alan Fridlund (2017). This trend was reflected in at least two posters that addressed how these facial movements communicate besides emotions, social meanings. The first one directed by Nölle, about cognition and social messages (interest, boredom, thinking, and confusion). The second one, by Hensel, identified how different dynamic facial expressions were related to traits attribution like dominance, submission, trustworthiness, and untrustworthiness. It’s become indisputable: facial actions communicate much more than emotions and research should address this systematically.
Last but not least, I am surprised that to my knowledge that there is no consensus about the definition of what is an emotion. It was very interesting that two of the leading international researchers in the field had some oppositions regarding giving a clear-cut distinction. When asked about it, Lisa Feldman Barret said that it’s a construction of the brain with certain attributes, just like any other constructed event by the brain. While Adolphs felt more comfortable indicating what is NOT an emotion, for instance, saying it’s not an experience. He added that it’s a psychological variable. And finally, he expressed that we cannot have a definition of emotion. While this may seem somehow problematic, in my opinion, it reveals the inherent problem that it has existed since the dawn of times: everyone defined emotion in his term.
In the field of gesture, there may be different considerations, some way consider gesture to be the hand movements while talking, others may include the facial illustrations that support, highlight and complement verbal communication, and others may consider gesture to all body movement even the one that not intends to communicate. But no one thinks that being seated is a gesture since that’s a posture (maybe a “frozen” gesture). It’s reasonable to suggest that it’s easier to agree what a body movement is rather than what does the term emotion applies to, but that’s no excuse, rather a recognition of its complexity. Maybe a semantic approach to emotions it’s a probable solution for this lack of consensus, something that Keltner proposed as a possible lens for increasing our knowledge of emotions.
Of course, something that I cannot forget is that as always, there is progressive and increasing development of technology and its application regarding the exploration of the interconnection of emotions-technology. From fMRI, synthetic facial expressions, machine learning, deep neural networks, and a lot more.
3) I wanted to share a personal note here. I am from Argentina, the second Latin-American country with the second most high inflation in the last decade. With this in mind, it is quite difficult for us to travel to the USA or EUROPE to attend this kind of international event. The new online format brings a lot of benefits for researchers and students like me. This allowed the congress to break the attendee record. It allowed a huge number of presenters and it could potentially reduce the costs of having a presentation of the world know figures that have tight time schedules. One of the high points was the platform used, named Gathertown (https://gather.town/. One would register, create an avatar, a digital representation of oneself with a limited set of physical properties and costumes, and walk around a virtual setting. The rooms were settled based on the types of presentations: a video lounge, two plenaries, a presentation room (for posters), a hall, a salon for small talks, a lounge for students, and a lobby.
Personally, there were two very practical benefits of this. The first is those flash presentations were recorded, once would need to approach the location designated for that poster and activate the video that summed up in less than 7 minutes the research. If you wanted, then one could approach the avatar of the researcher and start a conversation. The second thing was the sociability of interaction. Each time you approach someone, a little screen faded in which one could see the other person if their camera was on. In this way, one could walk by whoever do you want and start a conversation with video and audio. This brilliant configuration allowed numerous random and not so random encounters, similar to what could have been possible in a virtual gathering, maybe even better in some sense (as well as worse, since vis-to-vis has obvious advantages).
The affective congress showed that international gatherings may well work very smoothly in a digital scenario, creating more opportunities for not Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, And Democratic (WEIRD) population as well as all to reduce the economic and time costs of traveling for all. The research on emotions seems to be growing. Fortunately, there is no particular focus of attention, rather an ample variety of interests. What may be a promising avenue for the future is an incremented consensus between researchers towards an integrative perspective on the definition, classification, structure, skills, and expressions of the positive and negative affects, but for that, time needs to pass.
Cowen, A. S., & Keltner, D. (2020). What the face displays: Mapping 28 emotions conveyed by naturalistic expression. American Psychologist, 75(3), 349.
Fridlund, A. J. (2017). The behavioral ecology view of facial displays, 25 years later. The science of facial expression, 77-92.
Hassin, R. R., Aviezer, H., & Bentin, S. (2013). Inherently ambiguous: Facial expressions of emotions, in context. Emotion Review, 5(1), 60-65.
Hove, M. J., & Risen, J. L. (2009). It’s all in the timing: Interpersonal synchrony increases affiliation. Social cognition, 27(6), 949-960.
Plusquellec, P., & Denault, V. (2018). The 1000 most cited papers on visible nonverbal behavior: A bibliometric analysis. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 42(3), 347-377.
Alan Crawley graduated with Honors in Psychology from the Universidad del Salvador (USAL). Diploma in Non-Verbal Communication, Graduate School in Communication, Austral University, Buenos Aires, Argentina. University professor in Research Methodology; Postgraduate teacher for Spain in Master of Non-Verbal Behavior. Academic director of the 2021 online congress on Non-Verbal Communication organized by the Behavior and Law Foundation of Spain. Certificate of Specialization in Recognition and Coding of Facial Movements with the FACS Method (Facial Action Coding System). Scientific researcher and disseminator on social networks (YouTube and Instagram) under the pseudonym of sin verba.