Even basic human emotions are not universally perceived (study)

New North­eastern Uni­ver­sity research calls into question the very foundations of emotion science. It’s a con­cept that had become uni­ver­sally under­stood: humans expe­ri­ence six basic emotions — happiness, sad­ness, anger, fear, dis­gust, and surprise — and use the same set of facial move­ments to express them. What’s more, we can rec­og­nize emo­tions on another’s face, whether that person hails from Boston or Borneo. The only problem with this con­cept, according to pro­fessor of Psy­chology Lisa Feldman Bar­rett, is that it isn’t true at all.  

If you look at the research that will follow, it is not that dissimilar from some of the research by Mehrabian and is a nice example of how science has to keep checking earlier research.

From the press release:

For nearly two decades, Bar­rett has been tracking down the research that estab­lished this mis­con­cep­tion and wouldn’t rest until she actu­ally per­formed the exper­i­ments to dis­prove it.

In two research papers, recently and soon to be pub­lished in the jour­nals Psy­cho­log­ical Sci­ence and Emo­tion,respectively, she’s finally done exactly that. The new research calls into ques­tion the very foun­da­tions of emo­tion sci­ence. As Bar­rett found, “Emo­tions are not uni­ver­sally per­ceived. Every­thing that’s pred­i­cated on that is a mistake.”

Here’s how the fal­sity came to be under­stood as fact. In the 1970s, a young psy­chol­o­gist named Paul Ekman trav­eled to Papua New Guinea to test whether emo­tions were uni­ver­sally expe­ri­enced and expressed as he sus­pected. To test his hypoth­esis, he looked at whether people rec­og­nized the same emo­tions in facial expres­sions around the world. Was a scowling face always clas­si­fied as angry regard­less of the observer’s cul­tural back­ground? A pouting face as sad?

He showed Amer­i­cans, as well as people in the remote south seas island who’d had little expo­sure to Western cul­ture, a series of pho­tographs depicting car­i­ca­tured expres­sions and asked his sub­jects to match the faces to one of six emo­tion words or sto­ries depicting emo­tional sce­narios. No matter where they came from, Ekman’s sub­jects saw the same emo­tions reflected in the same photographs.

But Bar­rett knew from her own research that con­text plays an enor­mous role in the way we per­ceive each other’s facial expres­sions. She won­dered whether the con­straints that Ekman put on his subjects — asking them to match images to finite cat­e­gories and rich sto­ries about emo­tional events rather than freely sort them at will — might in fact create the result he expected to find.

Enter Maria Gen­dron, a post-​​doctoral researcher in Barrett’s lab. In the fall of 2011, Gen­dron and a few other mem­bers of the team boarded a plain to Namibia, then hopped in a Toyota 4×4 for an hours long, off-​​road ride to one of the most remotely sit­u­ated tribes on the con­ti­nent. The Himba, Gen­dron said, were as little accli­mated to Western cul­ture as she could find.

Par­tic­i­pants in the Namibian Himba tribe did not rec­og­nize the same emo­tions in facial expres­sions and vocal­iza­tions as Amer­ican par­tic­i­pants. Photo cour­tesy of Maria Gendron.

She spent the next 18 days — and then another 20 during the spring of last year — sleeping in a tent atop the car by night and searching for uni­versal emo­tions by day. She didn’t find any.

Gen­dron looked at both facial expres­sions and vocal­iza­tions, hypoth­e­sizing that if emo­tion truly is uni­ver­sally rec­og­niz­able, the medium of expres­sion shouldn’t matter.

First Gen­dron gave her sub­jects 36 photos of faces (six people posing each of six expres­sions) and asked them to freely sort the photos into piles based upon sim­ilar facial expression.

“A uni­versal solu­tion would be six piles labeled with emo­tion words,” Bar­rett said. “This is not what we saw.” Instead the par­tic­i­pants cre­ated many more than six piles and used very few emo­tion words to describe them. The same photo would end up in var­ious piles, which the sub­jects labeled as “happy,” “laughing,” or “kumisa,” a word that roughly trans­lates to wonder.

The vocal­iza­tions fared no better. This time, Gen­dron asked people to freely label the sounds. Again, few emo­tion words were used. The same sounds seemed gleeful to some sub­jects and dev­as­tated to others.

Finally, Gen­dron and Bar­rett repeated the exper­i­ment back in Boston, so they could com­pare the results to a group living in Western cul­ture. The results were sig­nif­i­cantly dif­ferent. “The par­tic­i­pants in Boston were able to label the expres­sions with the expected terms but fared better when the words were pro­vided as part of the task,” Gen­dron said. This indi­cates that what were assumed to be “psy­cho­log­ical uni­ver­sals” may in fact be “Western” — or per­haps even “American” — cultural cat­e­gories, she said.

Abstract of the first paper:

A central question in the study of human behavior is whether certain emotions, such as anger, fear, and sadness, are recognized in nonverbal cues across cultures. We predicted and found that in a concept-free experimental task, participants from an isolated cultural context (the Himba ethnic group from northwestern Namibia) did not freely label Western vocalizations with expected emotion terms. Responses indicate that Himba participants perceived more basic affective properties of valence (positivity or negativity) and to some extent arousal (high or low activation). In a second, concept-embedded task, we manipulated whether the target and foil on a given trial matched in both valence and arousal, neither valence nor arousal, valence only, or arousal only. Himba participants achieved above-chance accuracy only when foils differed from targets in valence only. Our results indicate that the voice can reliably convey affective meaning across cultures, but that perceptions of emotion from the voice are culturally variable.

Abstract of the second paper:

For decades, psychologists and neuroscientists have hypothesized that the ability to perceive emotions on others’ faces is inborn, prelinguistic, and universal. Concept knowledge about emotion has been assumed to be epiphenomenal to emotion perception. In this article, we report findings from 3 patients with semantic dementia that cannot be explained by this “basic emotion” view. These patients, who have substantial deficits in semantic processing abilities, spontaneously perceived pleasant and unpleasant expressions on faces, but not discrete emotions such as anger, disgust, fear, or sadness, even in a task that did not require the use of emotion words. Our findings support the hypothesis that discrete emotion concept knowledge helps transform perceptions of affect (positively or negatively valenced facial expressions) into perceptions of discrete emotions such as anger, disgust, fear, and sadness. These findings have important consequences for understanding the processes supporting emotion perception.

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