Boston Magazine has a fascinating article on the work of psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett who has been leading the charge against the idea that we recognise the same facial expression of emotion across the world.
This was first suggested by Paul Ekman whose work suggested that humans can universally recognise six emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise.
His research involved showing people from different cultures pictures of faces and asking them to label each expression from a choice of emotional words.
But Barrett has found a simple flaw in the procedure:
She returned to those famous cross-cultural studies that had launched Ekman’s career—and found that they were less than watertight. The problem was the options that Ekman had given his subjects when asking them to identify the emotions shown on the faces they were presented with. Those options, Barrett discovered, had limited the ways in which people allowed themselves to think.
Barrett explained the problem to me this way: “I can break that experiment really easily, just by removing the words. I can just show you a face and ask how this person feels. Or I can show you two faces, two scowling faces, and I can say, ‘Do these people feel the same thing?’ And agreement drops into the toilet.”
The article is on much more than this controversy in cognitive science and also tracks how research on emotion and facial expression is playing an increasing role in law enforcement – with not all of it well supported by evidence.
And if you want links to some of the scientific papers, the always interesting Neuroanthropology blog has more at the bottom of this post.
Link to Boston Magazine article ‘About Face’.