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.

Read the article at Popular Science →