For or more than a century, scientists have wondered whether all humans experience the same basic range of emotions—and if they do, whether they express them in the same way. In the 1870s, it was the central question Charles Darwin explored in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. By the 1960s, emeritus psychologist Paul Ekman, then at the University of California (UC) in San Francisco, had come up with an accepted methodology to explore this question. He showed pictures of Westerners with different facial expressions to people living in isolated cultures, including in Papua New Guinea, and then asked them what emotion was being conveyed. Ekman’s early experiments appeared conclusive. From anger to happiness to sadness to surprise, facial expressions seemed to be universally understood around the world, a biologically innate response to emotion.
That conclusion went virtually unchallenged for 50 years, and it still features prominently in many psychology and anthropology textbooks, says James Russell, a psychologist at Boston College and corresponding author of the recent study. But over the last few decades, scientists have begun questioning the methodologies and assumptions of the earlier studies. [...]
Based on his research, Russell champions an idea he calls “minimal universality.” In it, the finite number of ways that facial muscles can move creates a basic template of expressions that are then filtered through culture to gain meaning. If this is indeed the case, such cultural diversity in facial expressions will prove challenging to emerging technologies that aspire to decode and react to human emotion, he says, such as emotion recognition software being designed to recognize when people are lying or plotting violence.
“This is novel work and an interesting challenge to a tenet of the so-called universality thesis,” wrote Disa Sauter, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, in an email. She adds that she’d like to see the research replicated with adult participants, as well as with experiments that ask people to produce a threatening or angry face, not just interpret photos of expressions. “It will be crucial to test whether this pattern of ‘fear’ expressions being associated with anger/threat is found in the production of facial expressions, since the universality thesis is primarily focused on production rather than perception.”