Many sci­en­tists believe that all people expe­ri­ence and express the same bio­log­i­cally “basic” emo­tions — an idea they have attrib­uted to evo­lu­tionist Charles Darwin and one that has shaped modern secu­rity training and law enforce­ment techniques.

But that belief is not rooted in sound sci­en­tific study, says Northeastern’s Lisa Feldman Bar­rett, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Psy­chology in the Col­lege of Sci­ence, who wrote a review of recent research for the Asso­ci­a­tion for Psy­cho­log­ical Science’s journal, Cur­rent Direc­tions in Psy­cho­log­ical Sci­ence, titled “Was Darwin Wrong About Emo­tional Expressions?”

It has been assumed for many years that when you feel some emo­tion, you auto­mat­i­cally show that emo­tion on your face. This belief guides secu­rity training at air­ports, FBI training and so on,” Bar­rett said. “But there’s a lot of research out there to show that emo­tions are not written on the face, that there’s a lot of con­text that a per­ceiver like you or me brings to the judg­ment of facial expressions.”

Backers of a “basic” emo­tions approach cite Darwin, who wrote “Expres­sion of Emo­tion in Man and Ani­mals” after his famous “Origin of the Species.” That book argued that emo­tions were states of minds that were auto­mat­i­cally expressed across animal species.

But Darwin’s views were that these emo­tional expres­sions were ves­ti­gial, more like your tail­bone — some­thing that evo­lu­tion car­ried for­ward but which may no longer be of any use,” Bar­rett said. “So Darwin was arguing that these expres­sions are no longer func­tional, thereby showing that they must exist as an inher­ited characteristic.”

Com­monly held beliefs in psy­chology include that humans auto­mat­i­cally express a handful of emo­tions, like sad­ness through a frown or anger through a scowl. But recent research — by Barrett’s own lab at North­eastern and others — has chal­lenged that long­standing hypoth­esis. Instead, the new research shows that small changes in an exper­i­ment can lead to dra­mat­i­cally dif­ferent results. And recent arti­cles pub­lished in the jour­nals Nature and Sci­ence call into ques­tion the use of security-​​training tech­niques based on the “basic emo­tion” approach.

The fact is, it’s not really clear from the existing evi­dence that people actu­ally make these expres­sions on an everyday basis,” Bar­rett said. “When do people actu­ally pout in sad­ness? You cer­tainly couldn’t win an Academy Award for pouting in sadness.”

Bar­rett said that fur­ther study of emo­tion beyond the most pop­ular hypoth­esis is impor­tant, espe­cially since the poten­tially flawed research has become the basis for law enforce­ment and home­land secu­rity pro­to­cols and procedures.

The idea that facial expres­sions are a beacon for you to read is just not right,” she said. “It’s a really pop­ular view and you can find data that sup­ports it, but you can also find a tremen­dous amount of data that does not. That research doesn’t seem to be get­ting much play, and it needs to.”