Washington: Researchers have said that the concept that humans can recognize emotions on another’s face, whether that person hails from Boston or Borneo, may not be true at all.

For nearly two decades, Northeastern University Distinguished Professor of Psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett has been tracking down the research that established this misconception.

In two research papers, she’s found that emotions are not universally perceived, asserting that everything that’s predicated on that is a mistake.

Barrett knows from her own research that context plays an enormous role in the way people perceive each other’s facial expressions.

Maria Gendron, a postdoctoral researcher in Barrett’s lab and her team boarded a plain to Namibia, and Gendron 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.

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 two research papers are soon to be published in the journals Psychological Science and Emotion.

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