Washington: Human emotions are not universally perceived, according to a new study which suggests there may be no such thing as reading someone’s facial expressions.

The study challenges a popular concept that humans experience six basic emotions and use the same set of facial movements to express them. Also, we can recognise emotions on another’s face, regardless of where the person comes from.

Northeastern University’s Professor of Psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett and colleagues have disproved the theory in two research papers, recently and soon to be published in the journals Psychological Science and Emotion, respectively.

“Emotions are not universally perceived. Everything that’s predicated on that is a mistake,” Barrett said.
The theory came to be understood as fact when in the 1970s, a psychologist named Paul Ekman travelled to Papua New Guinea to test whether emotions were universally experienced.

He showed Americans and people in the remote south seas island who’d had little exposure to Western culture, a series of photographs depicting caricatured expressions.

He 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.

Barrett 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 create the result he expected to find.

In 2011, Maria Gendron, a post-doctoral researcher in Barrett’s lab went to Namibia and visited one of the most remotely situated tribes on the continent.

Participants in the Namibian Himba tribe did not recognise the same emotions in facial expressions and vocalisations as American participants, the study found.

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 labelled with emotion words. This is not what we saw,” Barrett said.

The participants created more than six piles and used very few emotion words to describe them. The same photo ended up in various piles, which subjects labelled as “happy,” “laughing,” or “kumisa,” a word that translates to wonder.

The vocalisations 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.

The experiment was repeated in Boston.

“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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