Study Shows Facial Expressions, Emotions Are Not Quite as Universal as We Assumed

Study Shows Facial Expressions, Emotions Are Not Quite as Universal as We Assumed

It may be shocking to some Westerners to learn that not all of the facial expressions that we associate with certain emotions and intentions are perceived the same way in other parts of the world. Two separate studies on the matter that were conducted decades apart in and around isolated regions of Papua New Guinea using the similar methodologies showed slightly varied results.

The first study, conducted by professor emeritus Paul Ekman in the 1960s, involved showing the natives pictures of Westerners exhibiting different facial expressions; he asked the natives to identify the following emotions:  happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust or hunger based on those pictures. Ekman concluded that facial expressions are universally associated with the emotions on that list, a theory that has been widely accepted and reiterated for the past 50 years.

In 2011, however, Carlos Crivelli and Sergio Jarillo asserted that Ekman’s approach was too simplistic to be completely accurate, and they conducted their own study. They decided to immerse themselves in the local culture for several months and even learn the language before starting their social experiment. This approach yielded an interesting discovery: The participants (who ranged between the ages of 9 and 15) identified a facial expression that is typically associated with fear and submission as expressing anger instead. The expression in question showed the following facial muscle placements: raised eyebrows, wide eyes, and a gaping open mouth. The general consensus was that this person gave a threatening impression, and rather than showing fear, they instilled fear in others.

While there remains more to be studied in this field, it is interesting to note that facial expressions are not necessarily universal in terms of the impressions they convey and render in other people. Both studies suggest that these are culturally acquired traits that we learn from the environments in which we live.