Our cur­rent under­standing of facial expres­sions could be spe­cific to Western cultures.

From a very young age, infants have a way of making their feel­ings known – con­torted faces and howls indi­cate their dis­plea­sure with a meal or a damp diaper, a gummy smile their con­tent­ment, and a fur­rowed brow their puz­zle­ment over a new dis­covery such as their thumb.

While it seems log­ical that these expres­sions are uni­versal, the latest study sug­gests they may not be. In fact, expres­sions of the major emo­tions – hap­pi­ness, sad­ness, anger and the like, may be strongly cul­tur­ally driven.

Maria Gen­dron, a post doc in the lab of psy­chology pro­fessor Lisa Feldman Bar­rett at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, vis­ited remote tribes in Namibia to come to that con­clu­sion. Gen­dron spent 18 days with the Himba, a people with little expo­sure to the Western world. When mem­bers were asked to sort photos of six people making six facial expres­sions of emo­tions, she expected to see six neat piles of images.

Instead, she found that the tribal mem­bers cre­ated a mul­ti­tude of piles, with some images appearing in more than one. The same thing hap­pened when she played vocal sounds of emo­tions – the same sound appeared joyful to some and more neg­a­tive to others. When she and Bar­rett repeated the exper­i­ment in Boston, there was more una­nimity in the sorting.

Read the article at Time →