Facial expressions—including fear—may not be as universal as we thought

first_img Sign up for our daily newsletter Get more great content like this delivered right to you! Country When you’re smiling, it may feel like the whole world is smiling with you, but a new study suggests that some facial expressions may not be so universal. In fact, several expressions commonly understood in the West—including one for fear—have very different meanings to one indigenous, isolated society in Papua New Guinea. The new findings call into question some widely held tenets of emotional theory, and they may undercut emerging technologies, like robots and artificial intelligence programs tasked with reading people’s emotions.For more than a century, scientists have wondered whether all humans experience the same basic range of emotions—and if they do, whether they express them in the same way. In the 1870s, it was the central question Charles Darwin explored in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. By the 1960s, emeritus psychologist Paul Ekman, then at the University of California (UC) in San Francisco, had come up with an accepted methodology to explore this question. He showed pictures of Westerners with different facial expressions to people living in isolated cultures, including in Papua New Guinea, and then asked them what emotion was being conveyed. Ekman’s early experiments appeared conclusive. From anger to happiness to sadness to surprise, facial expressions seemed to be universally understood around the world, a biologically innate response to emotion.That conclusion went virtually unchallenged for 50 years, and it still features prominently in many psychology and anthropology textbooks, says James Russell, a psychologist at Boston College and corresponding author of the recent study. But over the last few decades, scientists have begun questioning the methodologies and assumptions of the earlier studies. Country * Afghanistan Aland Islands Albania Algeria Andorra Angola Anguilla Antarctica Antigua and Barbuda Argentina Armenia Aruba Australia Austria Azerbaijan Bahamas Bahrain Bangladesh Barbados Belarus Belgium Belize Benin Bermuda Bhutan Bolivia, Plurinational State of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba Bosnia and Herzegovina Botswana Bouvet Island Brazil British Indian Ocean Territory Brunei Darussalam Bulgaria Burkina Faso Burundi Cambodia Cameroon Canada Cape Verde Cayman Islands Central African Republic Chad Chile China Christmas Island Cocos (Keeling) Islands Colombia Comoros Congo Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Cook Islands Costa Rica Cote d’Ivoire Croatia Cuba Curaçao Cyprus Czech Republic Denmark Djibouti Dominica Dominican Republic Ecuador Egypt El Salvador Equatorial Guinea Eritrea Estonia Ethiopia Falkland Islands (Malvinas) Faroe Islands Fiji Finland France French Guiana French Polynesia French Southern Territories Gabon Gambia Georgia Germany Ghana Gibraltar Greece Greenland Grenada Guadeloupe Guatemala Guernsey Guinea Guinea-Bissau Guyana Haiti Heard Island and McDonald Islands Holy See (Vatican City State) Honduras Hungary Iceland India Indonesia Iran, Islamic Republic of Iraq Ireland Isle of Man Israel Italy Jamaica Japan Jersey Jordan Kazakhstan Kenya Kiribati Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Republic of Kuwait Kyrgyzstan Lao People’s Democratic Republic Latvia Lebanon Lesotho Liberia Libyan Arab Jamahiriya Liechtenstein Lithuania Luxembourg Macao Macedonia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Madagascar Malawi Malaysia Maldives Mali Malta Martinique Mauritania Mauritius Mayotte Mexico Moldova, Republic of Monaco Mongolia Montenegro Montserrat Morocco Mozambique Myanmar Namibia Nauru Nepal Netherlands New Caledonia New Zealand Nicaragua Niger Nigeria Niue Norfolk Island Norway Oman Pakistan Palestine Panama Papua New Guinea Paraguay Peru Philippines Pitcairn Poland Portugal Qatar Reunion Romania Russian Federation Rwanda Saint Barthélemy Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Saint Kitts and Nevis Saint Lucia Saint Martin (French part) Saint Pierre and Miquelon Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Samoa San Marino Sao Tome and Principe Saudi Arabia Senegal Serbia Seychelles Sierra Leone Singapore Sint Maarten (Dutch part) Slovakia Slovenia Solomon Islands Somalia South Africa South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands South Sudan Spain Sri Lanka Sudan Suriname Svalbard and Jan Mayen Swaziland Sweden Switzerland Syrian Arab Republic Taiwan Tajikistan Tanzania, United Republic of Thailand Timor-Leste Togo Tokelau Tonga Trinidad and Tobago Tunisia Turkey Turkmenistan Turks and Caicos Islands Tuvalu Uganda Ukraine United Arab Emirates United Kingdom United States Uruguay Uzbekistan Vanuatu Venezuela, Bolivarian Republic of Vietnam Virgin Islands, British Wallis and Futuna Western Sahara Yemen Zambia Zimbabwe A young Trobriander from the village of Kaulaka points to a gasping face, indicating that he recognizes it as a threat display. Email Carlos Crivelli and Sergio Jarillo Psychologist Carlos Crivelli was one of them. In 2011, he was working with his colleague, psychologist José-Miguel Fernández-Dols, at the Autonomous University of Madrid. Together, they came up with a plan to investigate Ekman’s initial research in Papua New Guinea. Crivelli and longtime friend and research partner, Sergio Jarillo, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, traveled to the Trobriand Islands off Papua New Guinea’s east coast, where about 60,000 indigenous Trobrianders live. These horticulturists and fishermen have been historically isolated from both mainland Papua New Guinea and the outside world. To learn all that they could, Crivelli and Jarillo embedded themselves in the local culture. They were adopted by host families and took clan names; Crivelli became “Kelakasi” and Jarillo, “Tonogwa.” They spent many months learning the local language, Kilivila.When it came time to begin the study, they didn’t need translators or local guides. They simply showed 72 young people between the ages of 9 and 15 from different villages photos from an established set of faces used in psychological research. The researchers asked half the Trobrianders to link each of the faces to an emotion from a list: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, or hunger. The other half was given a different task.Crivelli found that they matched smiling with happiness almost every time. Results for the other combinations were mixed, though. For example, the Trobrianders just couldn’t widely agree on which emotion a scowling face corresponded with. Some said this and some said that. It was the same with the nose-scrunching, pouting, and a neutral expression. There was one facial expression, though, that many of them did agree on: a wide-eyed, lips-parted gasping face (similar to above) that Western cultures almost universally associate with fear and submission. The Trobrianders said it looked “angry.”Surprised, Crivelli showed a different set of Trobrianders the same faces, but he couched his questions in stories—e.g., “Which of these people would like to start a fight?”—to draw out more context. They, too, associated the gasp face with threatening behavior, Crivelli reports today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The implications here are really big,” he says. “It strongly suggests that at least these facial behaviors are not pancultural, but are instead culturally specific.” That’s not to say that emotions don’t elicit natural physiological reactions, Russell explains, but the study suggests that reactions and interpretations can vary from culture to culture. With the gasp face, for example, Russell speculates that the expression could be a natural response to urgent, distressing situations. Whereas Western culture has tied that expression to feeling fear, it might be that the Trobrianders associate the expression with instilling it. Crivelli agrees, and points to another culture whose ritualized dances feature a similar expression in a threatening fashion: the Māori of New Zealand.Based on his research, Russell champions an idea he calls “minimal universality.” In it, the finite number of ways that facial muscles can move creates a basic template of expressions that are then filtered through culture to gain meaning. If this is indeed the case, such cultural diversity in facial expressions will prove challenging to emerging technologies that aspire to decode and react to human emotion, he says, such as emotion recognition software being designed to recognize when people are lying or plotting violence.“This is novel work and an interesting challenge to a tenet of the so-called universality thesis,” wrote Disa Sauter, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, in an email. She adds that she’d like to see the research replicated with adult participants, as well as with experiments that ask people to produce a threatening or angry face, not just interpret photos of expressions. “It will be crucial to test whether this pattern of ‘fear’ expressions being associated with anger/threat is found in the production of facial expressions, since the universality thesis is primarily focused on production rather than perception.”Social psychologist Alan Fridlund at UC in Santa Barbara, says the researchers’ level of immersion in the Trobrianders’ culture gives them a unique perspective on threat displays, and not relying on translators improves the study’s accuracy. “I think the real strength of this paper is that it knows its participants so well,” he says.But he adds that the snapshot method may not be the best way to analyze how people view different facial expressions—after all, in everyday life, people see facial expressions in the context of what’s going on around them, he says. Another problem has to do with the study design—“happiness” was the only positive emotion that Trobrianders were given as an option, Fridlund says, which may have biased the results. For example, if the researchers had included “amusement” or “contentment” as answers, the apparent agreement over smiling might have disappeared.Despite agreeing broadly with the study’s conclusions, Fridlund doubts it will sway hardliners convinced that emotions bubble forth from a common fount. Ekman’s school of thought, for example, arose in the post–World War II era when people were seeking ideas that reinforced our common humanity, Fridlund says. “I think it will not change people’s minds. People have very deep reasons for adhering to either universality or cultural diversity.”*Correction, 18 October, 12:33 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct the number of Trobrianders and their way of life, and to better describe the questions asked of them. Click to view the privacy policy. Required fields are indicated by an asterisk (*)last_img read more