Can You Read the Emo­tions on Another's Face? Maybe. Maybe not.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Maria Gendron
Post-doctoral psy­chology researcher Maria Gen­dron trav­eled to Namibia to inves­ti­gate whether indi­vid­uals from non-Western cul­tures rec­og­nize the same emo­tions as West­erners do in facial expres­sions and vocal­iza­tions.
So much of human communication is physical, and most of us pride ourselves in being able to tell what a person is feeling by reading the emotion on their face.  But can we?  New research qualifies this common assumption.  We can read the emotion on another person's face - as long as they share the same cultural background.  i.e., Americans are best at reading American's faces and so on.

Your face says it all? Not so fast


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New research calls into question the very foundations of emotion science. 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 new research, is that it isn't true at all. Researchers have found that even basic human emotions are in fact not universally perceived.

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 facial expres­sions 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.
Par­tic­i­pants in the Namibian Himba tribe did not rec­og­nize the same emo­tions in facial expres­sions and vocal­iza­tions as Amer­ican par­tic­i­pants. 
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.
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Story Sources
  1. Materials provided by Northeastern University. Original article written by Angela Herring.
  2. M. Gendron, D. Roberson, J. M. van der Vyver, L. F. Barrett. Cultural Relativity in Perceiving Emotion From Vocalizations. Psychological Science, 2014.
  3. Kristen A. Lindquist, Maria Gendron, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Bradford C. Dickerson. Emotion Perception, but not Affect Perception, Is Impaired With Semantic Memory Loss.. Emotion, 2014

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