Facial Expressions Not Universally Perceived
March 6, 2014

Universally Understood Expressions Of Emotion Are Mainly Specific To Western Culture

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A new study published on Wednesday in the journal Psychological Science has found that facial expressions and emotional vocalizations are not universally understood across cultural barriers – contradicting a long-held emotion science belief.

Emotions are not universally perceived,” said Lisa Feldman Barrett, professor of psychology Northeastern University. “Everything that’s predicated on that is a mistake.”

In the 1970s, psychologist Paul Ekman traveled to Papua New Guinea to see if emotions were generally experienced and portrayed the same around the world. More specifically, Ekman wanted to see if people perceive the same emotions in facial expressions regardless of cultural upbringing.

In his study, Ekman showed both Americans and isolated indigenous people living in Papua New Guinea a sequence of images showing facial expressions and asked his subjects to match the images to one of six emotion words or stories showing emotional scenarios. Ekman found that his subjects saw the same emotions reflected in the same pictures regardless of culture.

Based on her own research, however, Barrett has theorized that context plays a significant part in the manner we perceive facial expressions. She posited that Ekman put constraints on his subjects by asking them to match images to distinct categories and explicit stories about emotional events as opposed to allowing them to freely sort the images.

In the latest study, researchers traveled to a remote part of Namibia to meet with the Himba – a tribe basically cut off from Western culture. The researchers looked to investigate both facial expressions and emotional vocalizations, in an attempt to rule out the medium of expression as a factor.

First, Himba participants were given 36 photos of faces, showing six people posing each of six different emotional expressions: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise. Participants were then asked to freely sort the photos into piles based upon what they thought were similar facial expressions.

“A universal solution would be six piles labeled with emotion words,” Barrett said. “This is not what we saw.”

The Himba subjects created more than six piles and often did not use emotion words to describe them. The researchers said the same photo would end up in various piles, which the subjects categorized as “happy,” “laughing,” or “kumisa,” a word that roughly means wonder.

Working next with emotional vocalizations, the researchers found that their Himba subjects had a similar response to the emotions portrayed via facial expression.

Finally, the researchers repeated their experiments back in Boston – where Western subjects produced expected results.

“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,” said study author Maria Gendron, a post-doctoral researcher at Northeastern.

Gendron said the study showed that what were previously thought to be universally understood expressions of emotion are in fact specific to “Western” culture.

A similar study published in February by Barrett and other researchers found that there are only four basic emotions: happiness, sadness, fear/surprise and anger/disgust – not the six emotions also first posited by Ekman.