Compositionality in the language of emotion

Federica Cavicchio, Svetlana Dachkovsky, Livnat Leemor, Simone Shamay-Tsoory, Wendy Sandler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Emotions are signaled by complex arrays of face and body actions. The main point of contention in contemporary treatments is whether these arrays are discrete, holistic constellations reflecting emotion categories, or whether they are compositional-comprised of smaller components, each of which contributes some aspect of emotion to the complex whole. We address this question by investigating spontaneous face and body displays of athletes and place it in the wider context of human communicative signals and, in particular, of language. A defining property of human language is compositionality-the ability to combine and recombine a relatively small number of elements to create a vast number of complex meaningful expressions, and to interpret them. We ask whether this property of language can be discerned in a more ancient communicative system: intense emotional displays. In an experiment, participants interpreted a range of emotions and their strengths in pictures of athletes who had just won or lost a competition. By matching participants' judgements with minutely coded features of face and body, we find evidence for compositionality. The distribution of participants' responses indicates that most of the athletes' face and body features contribute to displays of dominance or submission. More particular emotional components related, for example, to positive valence (e.g. happy) or goal obstruction (e.g. frustrated), were also found to significantly correlate with certain face and body features. We propose that the combination of features linked to broader components (i.e, dominant or submissive) and to more particular emotions (e.g, happy or frustrated) reflects more complex emotional states. In sum, we find that the corporeal expression of intense, unfiltered emotion has compositional properties, potentially providing an ancient scaffolding upon which, millions of years later, the abstract and constrained compositional system of human language could build.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0201970
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2018 Cavicchio et al.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General


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