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What others have said about Tomkins

Paul Ekman

Excerpted from Paul Ekman’s introduction to Part III of Exploring Affect, edited by Virginia Demos.

Silvan Tomkins deserves much of the credit for the renewed interest in facial expression which has developed in the last two decades. His affect theory emphasized the importance of the face, providing a new conceptual framework for considering expression and emotion. It was a framework for which emphasized the role of biology and which conceived of emotion in terms of eight discrete, quite different affects, rather than two or three affective dimensions. At the time Silvan first wrote about the face, the only other psychologist publishing on expression was Harold Schlosberg, but his approach to expression–trying account for judgements in terms of a few underlying dimensions–did not awaken the interest of many others. Unlike Schlosberg, (who told me he never looked at the faces showed to the judges), Tomkins was fascinated by faces themselves. He was an extraordinarily keen interpreter of expression.

Tomkins’ publication in 1964 with McCarter had little direct impact on the field of psychology, then or now, but it had an enormous impact on me. It is amazingly rich in theoretical ideas . . . so many and sometimes presented in such an offhand way that it is easy to forget or miss some of them entirely. Some of these ideas he developed at length elsewhere; others are ideas which appear only here and were never fully developed. In a conversation with Tomkins some fifteen years after the publication of this article, I found that Tomkins himself had forgot some of the ideas he mentioned here.

Here is a brief listing of the theoretical points:

  • The face is central to emotion and has priority over visceral changes because of its speed, visibility and precision.

  • The face informs the self, not just others. Feedback of the facial response is the experience of affect.

  • Emotion is guided by innate inherent programs.

  • We learn the language of the face partly through correspondence between what a face looks like and what it feels like.

  • Every face has a predominant expression which shines thorugh poses and spontaneous expression.

  • Individual differences in the interpretation of facial expression reflect the personality of the perceiver, which resulted in the idea of examining affect sensitivity contours.

  • Particular emotions are commonly confused because of shared neurophysiology, shared situational contexts, response overlap, and the likelihood of occurring together.

I learned of his 1964 article before it appeared through the good offices of the editor of Psychological Reports, Carol Ammons, who informed Tomkins and me that we had each submitted articles on related topics and should get in touch with each other. We first corresponded and then met. Three years later I undertook cross-cultural studies of facial expression to test Tomkins’ ideas, and he helped me pick the photographs which I was to show in both literate and then preliterate cultures.

From my account of Tomkins’ first visit to my laboratory:

I remember very clearly the time when Silvan opened my eyes. It was 1966. Wally Friesen and I had spent a few hundred hours examining films . . . of two stone age cultures in New Guinea–the Fore, whom I visited the next year, and the Anga. Since we saw no expressions which were unfamiliar . . . this was our first glimmer that expressions might be universal. But we worried that our interpretation might be biased by what came next in the film. As a check we asked Silvan to look at portions of the film. We did not tell him anything about either culture, and we did not let him see any contextual information, just isolated expressions.

Silvan judged the expressions correctly in that the emotion he saw usually fit with what came before or afterward. When we asked him what his impressions were of these two cultures, he performed what seemed almost an act of magic. One group he said seemed quite friendly. The other he suspected were explosive in anger, highly suspicious if not paranoid in character, and homosexual. It was the Anga tha Silvan was describing, and his account fit what we had been told by [the researcher] who had worked with them. They repeatedly attacked Australian officials who tried to maintain a government station; they were known by others in New Guinea for their fierce suspiciousness, and they led homosexual lives until the time of marriage! A few years later an ethologist literally had to run for his life when he attempted to work with them.

After that meeting with Silvan I decided to devote myself to developing an objective way of measuring facial behavior to make available to anyone what he could see.

For more from Paul Ekman:

Virginia Demos

Excerpted from the Editor’s Preface of Exploring Affect.

Going well beyond Darwin’s earlier insights, Tomkins constructed a comprehensive theory of the biological basis of affects, their distinctive function within the human being, and their interactions with other important human mechanisms such as cognition, perception, memory and motor functions, their importance in human motivation, their contribution to unique personality configurations, which he called scripts, and their involvement in cultural meanings and values, such as ideologies. His work has provided the conceptual and methodological underpinnings for the recent resurgence of research on emotions, as manifested, for example, by the wide-spread use of the facial affect coding system developed by Paul Ekman and Carrol Izard, both deeply influenced by Tomkins’s ideas. Yet many young researchers do not seem to be aware of Tomkins’ seminal contributions.

This current obscurity is somewhat perplexing since he received considerable recognition during his career. He taught at Harvard, was a professor at Princeton for nearly two decades, and spent his final years before retirement at Rutgers. He published over fifty articles, authored seven books, edited five others, and, at the time of his death, left several unfinished manuscripts. But in spite of this distinguished career, his ideas have not been widely read or accepted by psychologists.

There are perhaps several reasons for this. First of all, his ideas went against the major trends in American psychology. While most psychologists were concerned with behaviorism or cognition, Tomkins was focused on affect. As psychology was becoming increasingly specialized and segregated, he was reading widely and extensively, searching for unities in the biopsychosocial characteristics of human beings. And while many psychologists embraced empiricism and advances in statistical techniques, eschewing theory, Tomkins set out to construct a grand theory, arguing that science can only advance through theory-guided exploration and not through simply applying available measures.

Second, and probably related to the first, some of his most important papers were published in out-of-the-way journals. For example, his groundbreaking research paper on facial expressions was published in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills. Also, the first two volumes of Affect Imagery Consciouness (AIC), published in 1962 and 1963 and representing the first comprehensive presentation of his theory, did not contain bibliographies. A bibliography was to appear at the end of Volume 3. Nearly thirty years later, Volume 3 became two volumes, and the bibliography finally appeared at the end of Volume 4. This unusual presentation and delay perhaps made it all too easy for psychologists to essentially ignore a major theoretical work.

And finally, his ideas are complex, sometimes counterintuitive, and demand that one never lose sight of the ever-changing multiplicity of factors operating within the human being. There is no quick, easy way to grasp Tomkins’ ideas and no single set of experiments that could verify the main tenets of his thinking. He is perhaps the only psychologist who truly accepted the complexity, uncertainty, and challenge that come with thinking in terms of systems, in which the important phenomena involve the interaction of multiple variables that cannot be studied by isolating a few variables in the usual experimental paradigm. Such a model is not eagerly embraced by a profession enamored with the experimental method and often seduced by simpler solutions.

Malcom Gladwell

Excerpted from Malcom Gladwell’s Blink:


Tomkins was the teacher. He was born in Philadelphia, at the turn of the last century, the son of a dentist from Russia. He was short, and thick around the middle, with a wild mane of white hair and huge black plastic-rimmed glasses. He taught psychology at Princeton and Rutgers, and was the author of “Affect, Imagery, Consciousness,” a four-volume work so dense that its readers were evenly divided between those who understood it and thought it was brilliant and those who did not understand it and thought it was brilliant.


He was a legendary talker. At the end of a cocktail party, a crowd of people would sit, rapt, at Tomkins’s feet, and someone would say, “One more question!” and they would all sit there for another hour and a half, as Tomkins held forth on, say, comic books, a television sitcom, the biology of emotion, his problem with Kant, and his enthusiasm for the latest fad diets, all enfolded into one extended riff.During the Depression, in the midst of his doctoral studies at Harvard, he worked as a handicapper for a horse-racing syndicate, and was so successful that he lived lavishly on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. At the track, where he sat in the stands for hours, staring at the horses through binoculars, he was known as the Professor. “He had a system for predicting how a horse would do based on what horse was on either side of him, based on their emotional relationship,” Ekman remembers. If a male horse, for instance, had lost to a mare in his first or second year, he would be ruined if he went to the gate with a mare next to him in the lineup. (Or something like that– no one really knew for certain.) Tomkins believed that faces–even the faces of horses–held valuable clues to our inner emotions and motivations.


He could walk into a post office, it was said, go over to the “Wanted” posters, and, just by looking at mug shots, tell you what crimes the various fugitives had committed. “He would watch the show ‘To Tell the Truth,’ and without fault he could always pick the person who was lying and who his confederates were,” his son, Mark, recalls. He actually wrote the producer at one point to say it was too easy, and the man invited him to come to New York, go backstage, and show his stuff.” Virginia Demos, who teaches psychology at Harvard, recalls having long conversations with Tomkins. “We would sit and talk on the phone, and he would turn the sound down while Jesse Jackson was talking to Michael Dukakis, at the Democratic National Convention. And he would read the faces and give his predictions on what would happen. It was profound.”


Paul Ekman first encountered Tomkins in the early 1960′s. Ekman was then a young psychologist, just out of graduate school, and he was interested in studying faces. Was there a common set of rules, he wondered, that governed the facial expressions that human beings made? Silvan Tomkins said that there were. But most psychologists said that there weren’t. The conventional wisdom of the time held that expressions were culturally determined–that we simply used our faces according to a set of learned social conventions. Ekman didn’t know who to believe. So he traveled to Japan, Brazil, and Argentina–and to remote tribes in the jungles of the Far East–carrying photographs of men and women making a variety of distinctive faces. To his amazement, everywhere he went people agreed on what those expressions meant. Tomkins was right.


Not long afterwards, Tomkins came to visit Ekman at his laboratory in San Francisco. Ekman had just tracked down a hundred thousand feet of film that had been shot by the virologist Carleton Gajdusek in the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea. Some of the footage was of a tribe called the South Fore, who were a peaceful and friendly people. The rest was of the Kukukuku, who were hostile and murderous and who had a homosexual ritual where pre-adolescent boys were required to serve as courtesans for the male elders of the tribe.


For six months, Ekman and his collaborator, Wallace Friesen, had been sorting through the footage, cutting extraneous scenes, focusing just on close-ups of the faces of the tribesmen, in order to compare the facial expressions of the two groups. Ekman set up the camera. Tomkins sat in the back. He had been told nothing about the tribes involved; all identifying context had been edited out. Tomkins looked on intently, peering through his glasses. At the end, he went up to the screen and pointed to the faces of the South Fore. “These are a sweet, gentle people, very indulgent, very peaceful,” he said. Then he pointed to the faces of the Kukukuku. “This other group is violent, and there is lots of evidence to suggest homosexuality.”


Even today, a third of a century later, Ekman cannot get over what Tomkins did. “My God! I vividly remember saying, “Silvan, how on earth are you doing that?” Ekman recalls. “And he went up to the screen and, while we played the film backward, in slow motion, he pointed out the particular bulges and wrinkles in the face that he was using to make his judgment. That’s when I realized, ‘I’ve got to unpack the face.’ It was a gold mine of information that everyone had ignored. This guy could see it, and if he could see it, maybe everyone else could, too.”


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