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Darwin's Stickers

Monday, February 09, 2015 - 01:49 PM

(Dacher Keltner)

For the past year, I have been working closely with Jad Abumrad and the team at RadioLab on a fascinating story about Facebook.

The story centers on the work of Arturo Bejar, who is one of the technical leaders at the company, and a team of engineers, product developers and external social scientists who collectively operate under the banner of the Compassion Research Group. Together, this team is studying how our ancient human capacities for conflict, compassion, respect, trust, and empathy are expressed by people on Facebook; based on these findings, they’re reworking the service’s interface to encourage more humane relationships among its 1.3 billion users.

In addition to exploring our digital relationships and emotions, the Facebook story also touches on the ways in which our online lives are continuously experimented upon; the new ways social scientists are exploring ancient questions with ‘big data’; and the ethical considerations that such inquiries inevitably raise. Social media is changing social science, and at Facebook, we caught a glimpse of its future.

For space and flow reasons, one particularly intriguing example of this work didn’t get an in-depth airing in the radio piece, and I thought I’d relate it here more fully.

The story actually begins all the way back in 1859, with the publication of Charles Darwin’s landmark treatise, On the Origin on Species. In that book, Darwin famously lays out the argument that species evolve over the course of generations, through the process of natural selection. At the time, most scientists, not to mention most people, were creationists who believed that the great diversity of Life was part of a natural and unchanging order, over which God had given us dominion. Accordingly, Darwin left the natural conclusion of his argument – that human beings evolved via the same mechanism as all other species – largely unstated. (Except, for a single, telling line at end of the book: “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”)

Darwin didn’t publish his own fuller views on human evolution until more than a decade later, with two works that came in rapid succession, The Descent of Man (in 1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (in 1872).

In first of these books, Darwin argued, to no one’s surprise, that human beings did indeed evolve from a common hominid ancestor. In the second book, however, he presented an argument not just about the origins of our species, but of our psyches.

His argument spoke to what was, both in Darwin’s time and our own, a commonly held view: that our emotional life – marked by feelings like grief, envy, tenderness, love, guilt, pride, and affirmation – is uniquely human. If our emotions are unprecedented, so the thinking went, then we must be, too.

To debunk this idea, Darwin presented a detailed taxonomy of forty distinct emotions, ranging from “high spirits” such as joy, to the “low” spirits” such as despair, and concluded with the more complex emotions such as shame. Then he painstakingly documented how these emotional expressions have consistent physiological roots. Everywhere, people use the same thirty muscles in our faces to pull our lips up into a smile, knit our forehead into a frown, distort our cheeks into a grimace of psychic pain, bow our heads in supplication, and tilt our necks to signal puzzlement.

Darwin argued that these emotional expressions are not just universal across cultures, but have their roots in purposeful, and similar, animal behaviors across many mammalian species. A Chimpanzee uses similar muscle groups to purse its lips as we do, and often for the same reasons. We’re not as different – or as special – as we might suppose.

With this argument, Darwin helped advance the field of evolutionary psychology and usher forth the robust scientific study of emotional experience.  His basic thesis has been elaborated, refined, studied and debated ever since.

Researchers subsequently confirmed that human beings in both Western and non-Western societies can indeed consistently recognize a core subset of Darwin’s facial expressions. In 1967, psychologist Paul Ekman, perhaps the most well known contemporary figure in emotions research, went so far as to show these expressions to an isolated community in Papua New Guinea, who had never seen modern movies or television. They were able to identify the expressions without difficulty. Other studies have shown that our autonomic nervous system responds in consistent ways when we see Darwinian expressions of emotion – further evidence that they’re hard-wired into our biology.

Yet critics point out that both the subjective experiences and physical expressions associated with supposedly ‘basic’ emotions can vary widely even within a category. One person might stutter when enraged, while another lets loose an eloquent stream of epithets; one person might blush with quiet pride at an accomplishment, while another roars like an NFL star in the endzone.

To critics, this variability suggests that emotions are as much cultural signals as they are biological ones. To stereotype for a moment (for rhetorical purposes only - no letters, please!): is the Southern Italian, who wildly gesticulates with his hands as he talks, really using the same innate, emotional vocabulary as the famously stoic Swede? Is the facially impassive, but verbally expressive Japanese businessman really wired the same way as the ironic Brooklyn hipster? Doesn’t this variety suggest that our emotional lives are substantially, if not entirely, a matter of culture?

And, if that’s the case, why should it matter that everyone in the world can associate a smile with happiness, if people in your particular society don’t actually make a habit of smiling when they’re happy?

Here, we return to Facebook, and to the work of the Compassion Research Group. One of its leading members is the Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, who co-directs that university’s aptly-named Greater Good Science Center. A former student and colleague of Ekman, Keltner’s research explores the roots of human goodness, particularly compassion, awe, love, and beauty, and how they are communicated through means of gestures, touch and expression.

During their work together, Arturo Bejar approached Keltner with an intriguing proposition: would he be interested in using what had been gleaned in the scientific study of emotions to design a ‘sticker pack’ for Facebook?

Stickers are widely-used animated icons (often of the human face or common objects) used to add expressiveness to otherwise bland text chats – think of them as more sophisticated versions of emoticons, like the “:-)”smiley face that some of us embed in our emails. Here was a chance to use Darwin’s insights to enhance the emotional content the online communications of millions of people around the world.

So Keltner turned to Matt Jones, an animator at Pixar Studios (yes, that Pixar) and gave him the job of designing 51 animated faces, mostly derived from Darwin’s original emotional taxonomy. The full list included admiration, affirmation, anger, anxiety, astonishment, awe, boredom, confusion, contemplation, contempt, contentment, coyness, curiosity, desire, determination, devotion, disagreement, disgust, embarrassment, enthusiasm, fear, gratitude, grief, guilt, happiness, high spirits, horror, ill temperment, indignant, interest, joy, laughter, love, maternal love, negation, obstinateness, pain, perplexity, pride, rage, relief, resignation, romantic love, sadness, shame, sneering, sulkiness, surprise, sympathy, terror, and weakness.


To succeed online, Jones’ sticker designs would have to consistently communicate these emotions without benefit of a label, and in very different parts of the world. End-users would have to be able to look at the sticker for ‘happiness’ or ‘maternal love’ and identify it as such. To ensure the stickers performed as expected, Keltner and his colleagues took Jones’s prototype designs and independently tested them with research subjects in two very different societies: the United States and China.

Overall, both the Chinese and American subjects had roughly the same accuracy, correctly identifying 42 of the 51 distinct emotions presented. Cultural differences did appear: the Chinese were better able to recognize negative emotions, while the Americans were better able to identify positive ones. Yet Jones’ designs universally communicated the most extensively-researched emotions like anger, disgust, fear, sadness, surprise, and happiness, as well as more recently-studied ones like embarrassment, pride, desire, and love – and even a few emotions that hadn’t been studied before, like contemplation, coyness, astonishment, boredom, and perplexity.

With these results in hand, Keltner and his colleagues turned Jones’ now-tested illustrations over to Facebook’s designers, who used the best performing ones to create a new sticker pack called Finch, named after the finches Darwin had famously encountered in the Galapagos Islands. Finch contains sixteen cross-culturally tested animations of emotions based on Jones’ original designs.


As the stickers were made available on Facebook, downloaded and then used in chats by millions of users around the world, the Compassion Research team could now look at how they were being used – not by specific users, but in the aggregate. How much ‘love’ was being expressed with the stickers in each country, on a per-capita basis? Or ‘anger’? Or ‘sympathy’? Did different cultures vary in terms of the types of emotional stickers they use? Over time, the researchers realized they could use such analysis to take the emotional temperature of a sizeable portion of the planet.

Clear patterns emerged in the data. Italians, South Africans, Russians and Brazilians had ‘Cultures of Love’ – sending lots of amorous stickers. The U.S. and Canada were similar in most of their usage patterns – though the Canadians were vastly more ‘sympathetic’, while the Americans were ‘sadder’. And the use of ‘deadpan’ stickers predominated across North Africa and the Middle East.

The picture got even more interesting when the researchers correlated the usage of the Finch stickers with other social indicators. Countries that expressed the most ‘awe’ online gave more to charity offline. And countries that expressed the most ‘happiness’ were not actually the happiest in real life. Instead, it was the countries that used the widest array of stickers that that did better on various measures of societal health, well-being – even longevity. “It’s not about being the happiest,” Keltner told me, “it’s about being the most emotionally diverse.”

These are intriguing correlations – and so far, they’re just that. We have to be careful not to over-extrapolate or conflate the measure of the thing for the thing being measured. Clicking on a sticker to express a belly laugh is not quite the same thing as having an actual belly laugh. And while there are now more Facebook users than Catholics worldwide, there are still more people who’ve never been online than have ever been on Facebook. (One wonders how their inclusion would skew the data.)

Still, this is clearly the beginning of a tantalizing and unprecedented social science revolution, one that will reveal previously impossible assessments of the global psyche, and perhaps shift the dialogue about the relationship between nature and culture. And one wonders what else might consistently correlate with our global emotional weathermap. The stock market, maybe? Or social revolution? Or world peace?

How does that make you feel?



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Comments [21]

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Mar. 28 2018 07:29 AM
Amanda H. Lauridsen

Emoticons are very useful just like stickers a great way to convey emotions.

Jun. 20 2017 02:32 AM

For people who are wondering (like I was) about the actual podcast, here is the link:

The link in the article is broken :-)

Jun. 02 2016 06:40 AM

Great article! Check out my articles on:

Sep. 25 2015 07:44 AM
Gar from Australia

I have "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals" on my bookshelf. It's a fascinating book and it's amazing that it would serve useful for emoticon research! ;-)
And thank you Radioloab for keeping me entertained each week. Please never stop telling these fascinating stories.

Apr. 17 2015 07:18 AM
Karen from Boston

Betcha Darwin never counted on the invention of Botox to mess up all those facial expressions!!

Mar. 29 2015 06:13 PM

On the Origin OF species....

Mar. 25 2015 02:35 PM
Elizabeth Eve King from United States

I love Radio Lab! :) :-)
We are devolving to hieroglyphs.

To be both on and off topic -

I wrote a story in which the emcons of the future send different emotions than those intended.
Smart computers:)

Mar. 20 2015 10:03 PM
Nikola Stamatovic from Serbia

An amazing article! :)
I've thought for years now about the improvement of the online communication and I've finally tackled this topic with my latest project Social Emotional Blogging Platform. I had a big problem to come up with an emoticon for the anticipation, not even sure that my solution is a valid one.
Please, if you find it relevant, check it out and send me your feedback or an opinion!

Forever thankful!

Mar. 11 2015 08:35 PM

Online communication using words was and always will remain very different from direct person to person communication.
Even a phone communication is not the same and relies on imagination and personal interpretation.
And remove the live audible human voice and instant response to the spoken word and all we are left with is the personal ability to express oneself with words and the personal interpretation of them by the reader.

Musical sounds and moods are the most direct communicator/deliverer of emotions. Far more than images can ever be.
Funny, appealing or grotesque smiley images, regardless how much researched and tested, remain a rather poor substitute of being able to verbalize a feeling or meaning and the reader being able to interpret it as intended.

Eventually, as data storage and transmitting capacity may increase, we will have to use live video feeds in HD to improve communication online.
But with the US trailing way behind with comparative global download speeds while charging more than any other country for internet service - Good Luck. ;)

For the real thing ... Google: da vinci grotesque faces

Mar. 04 2015 08:41 PM
Steve from Utah, USA

Great podcast, I found the Finch emoji's unusable when they came out and I do use emoticons on FB and email. First, the larger size changed what was a hint about my emotional status into an exclamation of it. Secondly, I find the sketches done by Jones MUCH more expressive and sensitive, the finch's are overtly sterile in their effort to homogenize a worldwide experience. I may have some bias here though, as a professional fine artist, sketching is a way of life for me and possibly it's a language of mark making that I commune with being from the artist's "tribe". The Disney element in the Finch's may work better for gen X, Y and Millennials who were babysat by a myriad of animation pictures and may be their first language because of it. ;)

Feb. 24 2015 09:15 AM
Charli from Texas

I think the smiley face with a tear, Lindsey from North Carolina, is representing tears of joy.
Very interesting read!

Feb. 21 2015 11:14 AM
Katniss K. Bond from USA

These emotions are perfect and I love the concept of connecting people with these online. I'm confused as to why Anna from Seattle wants "adult emotions." Do adults not feel anger, embarrassment, sadness, and happiness the same way children do? Or is she suggesting that adults are more "in control of their emotions." Sorry, Anna, following that logic, that would mean only changing the eyebrows for each face and maybe a slight twitch of the lips.

Feb. 16 2015 06:15 PM
Leslie from Montana

I don't find emoji creepy. I find them helpful. Just a wee hint to be sure of the message sender's meaning. @Anna from Seattle, the Finch set is deliberately designed to NOT represent any one demographic or ethnicity, to remain as "neutral" as possible, given that they are meant to convey an emotion. ;-) (That's an emoticon; Lindsey's question is about an emoji, and it signifies relief, a close call safely navigated.)

Just realized I sound very pedantic there, but what the hey... I'm gonna just roll with it. 8-)

Feb. 13 2015 10:38 PM
Zaheer from cape town, south africa

I loved this show and then this blog was the cherry on top. Such a fascinating history from Darwin to Eckman to smileys and onwards. The future is perhaps more uncertain than ever. Love it! THanks fro a great show.

Feb. 13 2015 08:42 AM
Teri from United States

What's so interesting to me, in addition to the unprecedented quantity and variety of demographics Facebook represents, is online social interaction itself and the enormous differences to live-action social interaction. I'm not so sure behavior in one area can be extrapolated or mimic the other...

Feb. 12 2015 12:13 AM
Elise from United States

They all seem simplistic, cartoonish, and a bit creepy (concurring with Anna from seattle). I wonder whether the researchers have inquired into the set of users who find the whole set too far off the mark to use...

Feb. 11 2015 06:29 PM
Andrew from Brooklyn

Hi everyone - I'm glad this piece is generating interest. I wanted to mention that credit for the final Finch stickers should go to Sam Hood. More on him and the Finch stickers here:

Feb. 11 2015 01:22 AM
Lindsey from North Carolina, USA

😅 I have never understood thus emoticon. Very interesting article and episode!

Feb. 10 2015 09:42 PM
Anna from seattle

I wish someone would design emnoticons for ADULTS...those are ridiculous & cartoony & only suitable for children.

Feb. 10 2015 01:26 PM

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