For half a cen­tury, one theory about the way we expe­ri­ence and express emo­tion has helped shape how we prac­tice psy­chology, do police work, and even fight ter­rorism. But what if that theory is wrong?

Forty-​​six years ago a young San Francisco–based cowboy of a psy­chol­o­gist named Paul Ekman emerged from the jungle with proof of a pow­erful idea. During the pre­vious couple of years, he had set out trying to prove a theory pop­u­lar­ized in the 19th cen­tury by Charles Darwin: that people of all ages and races, from all over the world, man­i­fest emo­tions the same way. Ekman had trav­eled the globe with pho­tographs that showed faces expe­ri­encing six basic emotions—happiness, sad­ness, fear, dis­gust, anger, and sur­prise. Every­where he went, from Japan to Brazil to the remotest vil­lage of Papua New Guinea, he asked sub­jects to look at those faces and then to iden­tify the emo­tions they saw on them. To do so, they had to pick from a set list of options pre­sented to them by Ekman. The results were impres­sive. Every­body, it turned out, even pre­lit­erate Fore tribesmen in New Guinea who’d never seen a for­eigner before in their lives, matched the same emo­tions to the same faces. Darwin, it seemed, had been right.

 

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