For nearly half a century, social scientists have operated under the assumption that all basic human emotions are universally recognizable. Countless cross-cultural experiments—not to mention a few television shows—have both directly and implicitly referenced the notion that every person on earth expresses facial emotion in the same way. Regardless of cultural context, we can all interpret happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust in the expressions of the people around us.
This belief has impacted countless studies and our general understanding of how emotions affect our daily lives, and it stemmed largely from the 1972 research of psychologist Paul Ekman. According to research published this month in the journal Emotion, however, it’s wrong.
Led by Northeastern University’s Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett and her post-doctoral researcher Maria Gendron, the new study shows that facial emotional recognition isn’t universal at all, and that previous studies pointing to universal expressions used methods that were highly dependent on context. In reality, a person’s ability to correctly register the emotion on another’s face hinges entirely on how those emotions are presented.