Your face says it all? Not so fast

March 5, 2014, Northeastern University
Your face says it all? Not so fast
Postdoctoral psychology researcher Maria Gendron travelled to Namibia to investigate whether individuals from non-Western cultures recognize the same emotions as Westerners do in facial expressions and vocalizations. Credit: Maria Gendron

It's a concept that had become universally understood: humans experience six basic emotions—happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise—and use the same set of facial movements to express them. What's more, we can recognize emotions on another's face, whether that person hails from Boston or Borneo.

The only problem with this concept, according to Northeastern University Distinguished Professor of Psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett, is that it isn't true at all.

For nearly two decades, Barrett has been tracking down the research that established this misconception and wouldn't rest until she actually performed the experiments to disprove it.

In two research papers, recently and soon to be published in the journals Psychological Science and Emotion, respectively, she's finally done exactly that. The new research calls into question the very foundations of emotion science. As Barrett found, "Emotions are not universally perceived. Everything that's predicated on that is a mistake."

Here's how the falsity came to be understood as fact. In the 1970s, a young psychologist named Paul Ekman traveled to Papua New Guinea to test whether emotions were universally experienced and expressed as he suspected. To test his hypothesis, he looked at whether people recognized the same emotions in around the world. Was a scowling face always classified as angry regardless of the observer's cultural background? A pouting face as sad?

He showed Americans, as well as people in the remote south seas island who'd had little exposure to Western culture, a series of photographs depicting caricatured expressions and asked his subjects to match the faces to one of six emotion words or stories depicting emotional scenarios. No matter where they came from, Ekman's subjects saw the same emotions reflected in the same photographs.

But Barrett knew from her own research that context plays an enormous role in the way we perceive each other's facial expressions. She wondered whether the constraints that Ekman put on his subjects—asking them to match images to finite categories and rich stories about emotional events rather than freely sort them at will—might in fact create the result he expected to find.

Enter Maria Gendron, a post-​​doctoral researcher in Barrett's lab. In the fall of 2011, Gendron and a few other members of the team boarded a plain to Namibia, then hopped in a Toyota 4x4 for an hours long, off-​​road ride to one of the most remotely situated tribes on the continent. The Himba, Gendron said, were as little acclimated to Western culture as she could find.

She spent the next 18 days—and then another 20 during the spring of last year—sleeping in a tent atop the car by night and searching for universal emotions by day. She didn't find any.

Gendron looked at both facial expressions and vocalizations, hypothesizing that if emotion truly is universally recognizable, the medium of expression shouldn't matter.

First Gendron gave her subjects 36 photos of faces (six people posing each of six expressions) and asked them to freely sort the photos into piles based upon similar facial expression.

"A universal solution would be six piles labeled with emotion words," Barrett said. "This is not what we saw." Instead the participants created many more than six piles and used very few emotion words to describe them. The same photo would end up in various piles, which the subjects labeled as "happy," "laughing," or "kumisa," a word that roughly translates to wonder.

The vocalizations fared no better. This time, Gendron asked people to freely label the sounds. Again, few emotion words were used. The same sounds seemed gleeful to some subjects and devastated to others.

Finally, Gendron and Barrett repeated the experiment back in Boston, so they could compare the results to a group living in Western culture. The results were significantly different. "The participants in Boston were able to label the expressions with the expected terms but fared better when the words were provided as part of the task," Gendron said. This indicates that what were assumed to be "psychological universals" may in fact be "Western"—or perhaps even "American"—cultural categories, she said.

Explore further: Written all over your face: Humans express four basic emotions rather than six

More information: Psychological Science February 5, 2014 0956797613517239 DOI: 10.1177/0956797613517239

Related Stories

Written all over your face: Humans express four basic emotions rather than six

February 3, 2014
Human beings are emotional creatures whose state of mind can usually be observed through their facial expressions.

A call for an evolved understanding of emotion

January 4, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Many scientists believe that all people experience and express the same biologically “basic” emotions — an idea they have attributed to evolutionist Charles Darwin and one that has shaped ...

Was Darwin wrong about emotions?

December 13, 2011
Contrary to what many psychological scientists think, people do not all have the same set of biologically "basic" emotions, and those emotions are not automatically expressed on the faces of those around us, according to ...

Ability to recognise expression tied to listening and emotion

January 6, 2014
West Australian researchers have developed two new tests that examine a typical person's ability to recognise basic facial expressions.

Understanding emotions without language

November 2, 2011
According to a new study by researchers from the MPI for Psycholinguistics and the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology, you don't need to have words for emotions to understand them. The results of the study were published online ...

In reading facial emotion, context is everything

October 3, 2011
In a close-up headshot, Serena Williams' eyes are pressed tensely closed; her mouth is wide open, teeth bared. Her face looks enraged. Now zoom out: The tennis star is on the court, racket in hand, fist clenched in victory. ...

Recommended for you

People with prosthetic arms less affected by common illusion

January 22, 2018
People with prosthetic arms or hands do not experience the "size-weight illusion" as strongly as other people, new research shows.

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 05, 2014
There has been a swing from one extreme: universal emotional expression, to another extreme: no universal expression. Both are likely to be wrong.

There is little doubt that these remote people laugh when happy but not when sad. This is universal. It appears that the tribal people examined did get the emotion categories correct but did not use the same words to do so ie for happy they used 'happy' and 'laughing', a mixture of descriptions of what the person is doing (laughing) and their internal state (happy).

Westerners would know to only include the internal state and nothing else. This is where they went wrong, not in the classification as such.

I'd agree that sis basic emotions is too narrow and that emotional expression is more fluid and contextual. But there is plenty of universals and extremely likely that there is a common locus running all the way down to the genes. Emotion modulated by culture and especially by one's personality is far more difficult to discern.
not rated yet Mar 05, 2014
Thus we have basic emotional expression; modulated culturally; modulated via personality; and contextual variations. The least changeable is the basic form, the most transient is the contextual ie there may be subtle variations on every instance of a smile. If stressed we are compelled to express at an ever more fundamental level eg if you lightly tap you finger with a hammer you might make funny grimaces through the pain to entertain your friends. But if the pain is bad enough then you cry out in pain with little conscious control if any.

As for the 'study', the error of the Ekman work was that he was looking only at universals, the second was looking only for the opposite of the Ekman and they were both looking for correlations to their model and structured their study accordingly. Science should investigate the phenomena to find out which model is correct, not to prove that a study can be set up to confirm a preconception ~ we already know that this is possible.
not rated yet Mar 13, 2014
This study mostly shows that different people have different priorities when classifying things.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.