The meaning of many emotional expressions is doubly underdetermined. First, emotional expressions that look or sound exactly identical may express different kinds of emotions (Barrett et al., 2011). For instance, facial expressions associated with disgust can also express sadness and anger depending on the context. Second, emotional expressions do not by themselves allow us to infer what the emotions they express are about. For instance, a facial expression of disgust doesn’t tell us what the person is disgusted by. Despite this, in normal cases, we automatically, effortlessly, and pre-attentively understand what kinds of emotion our interlocutors express and what it is about.
How do we perform this task? I defend that we do so with the same cognitive mechanisms that are studied by pragmatic theories. More precisely, I defend that emotional expressions, including those that are perceived by the audience as spontaneous and non-ostensive, automatically trigger what relevance theorists call the ‘relevance-theoretic comprehension procedure’ (Wilson & Sperber, 2006).
In a nutshell, the argument goes as follows. First, affective sciences have shown that emotions are reactions to stimuli appraised as extremely important to the emoters (Scherer & Moors, 2019). This means that, in normal cases, emotional stimuli are highly relevant and highly manifest to them (Wharton et al., 2021). For these reasons, our interlocutors’ emotional state and what it is about should be highly relevant for us either because it concerns us directly or, in any case, because it modulates our interaction insofar as they are signs of something highly relevant and highly manifest to our interlocutors. This suggests that interpreting emotional expressions is always worth putting in some cognitive efforts. Accordingly, it is plausible that we are biased (perhaps innately) to automatically take emotional expressions as sufficiently relevant to be worth the efforts of interpreting them through inferential comprehension procedures.
Barrett, L. F., Mesquita, B., & Gendron, M. (2011). Context in emotion perception. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(5), 286–290.
Scherer, K. R., & Moors, A. (2019). The emotion process: Event appraisal and component differentiation. Annual Review of Psychology, 70, 719–745.
Wharton, T., Bonard, C., Dukes, D., Sander, D., & Oswald, S. (2021). Relevance and emotion. Journal of Pragmatics, 181, 259–269.
Wilson, D., & Sperber, D. (2006). Relevance theory. In L. Horn (Ed.), The Handbook of pragmatics. Blackwell.