Dacher Keltner: Reading the Face

New Faculty Profile

by Fernando Quintero

With an "ah-shucks" look on his blushing face, Dacher Keltner, new assistant professor of psychology, suddenly became the subject of his own research on embarrassment as an interview and photo shoot with him in his Tolman Hall office began.

Keltner, a former assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has focused much of his research on facial expressions and their ability to influence social interactions, relationships, a person's health and a number of other important factors.

"Facial expressions serve important functions," said Keltner. "They communicate feelings to another person, and evoke feelings -- and they signal and evoke responses."

Hostile individuals, for example, may lead hostile lives because of the interactions and relationships they create through their consistent expression of anger.

Keltner's research concentrates on the social emotions of embarrassment, guilt and shame and looks at how they influence personality, psychological adjustment and social interaction.

Shelly Zedeck, psychology department chair, said Keltner joins a sizable group of Berkeley faculty working on emotion and its antecedents and consequences.

"He has done innovative work on the relationship of embarrassment to social status and power. He has studied emotions in India and the Philippines, where he has used creative methods to improve cross-cultural comparisons," Zedeck said.

Zedeck added Keltner had already received high marks from his students for his teaching technique.

Keltner, who was born in Mexico near Guadalajara and raised in the Sierra Nevada foothills by his "sort of beat parents," began his study of emotion at Stanford, where he earned his PhD in psychology.

He said his big break came during post-doctoral research with noted psychology professor Bob Levenson at Berkeley and at UCSF, where he assisted in a study of facial expressions of people after they were startled.

"I was looking at video tapes in slow motion of people getting startled by a really loud noise, and noticed a consistent look of embarrassment afterward," Keltner recalled. "I wanted to know what the function of embarrassment was. Why do we have this emotion?"

Keltner concluded that embarrassment, like shame, is an "appeasement gesture," a way of apologizing for making a social faux pas.

"It shows you're sorry for your mistake, that you care about the rule you violated. They motivate us to play by the rules and follow social codes," he said.

In related research, Keltner examined how emotional expression relates to psychological adjustment by looking at adolescent behavior and found that children who showed little or no embarrassment were more inclined to display anti-social behavior.

Keltner has also looked at teasing, flirtation and gossip as emotional expressions that serve specific social functions. His studies of teasing between fraternity members and romantic partners show that people tease each other in embarrassing ways to establish social relations and enhance social bonds.

His research interest also includes group conflict, examining the processes that lead to the escalation or resolution of personal and ideological conflict.

In a recent study, Keltner found that people have a powerful tendency to exaggerate the views of their ideological opponents, seeing an average of twice as much difference as actually exists between them.

Keltner has found this "imagined extremism" in a variety of settings, including conflicts over abortion rights, the interpretation of a racial incident, and the attitudes of gays and Christian fundamentalists.


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