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Sunday, 09 March 2014 20:02

Universality Challenged: Facial Expressions of Emotions not Culturally Universal?

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A recent study has been carried out by Lisa Feldman Barrett that is attempting to gain attention to her work in the field of universality of emotion. Unfortunately the research efforts were misdirected as they only looked at one aspect of the ability of an isolated Himba tribe in Namibia, South Africa; the ability to recognize emotional expressions. The outcomes of that study were then used to challenge Paul Ekman's findings that emotions are universally expressed. There have been over 75 studies that have demonstrated that these very same facial expressions are produced when emotions are elicited spontaneously (Matsumoto, Keltner, Shiota, Frank, & O'Sullivan, 2008). Ironically this was published in the Handbook of Emotions in p215 (2008) – edited by Lisa Feldman Barrett et al. This is a serious disconnect that good research should have addressed. This seems to have been supported by the rejection of the Namibia study by the respected journal, Science.

Barrett reported in July 2013 to Shannon Fischer, in a Boston Magazine interview that "Clearly people don't give a shit about data, because if they did, I wouldn't have this battle on my hands." Maybe the data needs to connect with more relevance to the claims made.

Extract from the Barrett article: "Barrett recently decided to take on Ekman's ideas directly, by sending a small research team to visit the isolated Himba tribe in Namibia, in southern Africa. The plan was this: The team, led by Maria Gendron, would do a study similar to Ekman's original cross-cultural one, but without providing any of the special words or context-heavy stories that Ekman had used to guide his subjects' answers. Barrett's researchers would simply hand a jumbled pile of different expressions (happy, sad, fearful, angry, disgusted, and neutral) to their subjects, and would ask them to sort them into six piles. If emotional expressions are indeed universal, they reasoned, then the Himba would put all low-browed, tight-lipped expressions into an anger pile, all wrinkled-nose faces into a disgust pile, and so on. It didn't happen that way. The Himba sorted some of the faces in ways that aligned with Ekman's theory: smiling faces went into one pile, wide-eyed fearful faces went into another, and affectless faces went mostly into a third. But in the other three piles, the Himba mixed up angry scowls, disgusted grimaces, and sad frowns. Without any suggestive context, of the kind that Ekman had originally provided (see Emotions Revealed), they simply didn't recognize the differences that leap out so naturally to Westerners."

The Ekman hypothesis that 'facial expressions of emotion are not culturally universal' is about the display of the emotion. The universality hypothesis does not claim that all humans perceive, describe or represent emotions universally – the universality hypothesis is to do with the argument that the basic internal human emotions (i.e., happy, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, sad – and latterly contempt) are expressed using the same facial movements across all cultures. The Barrett study seeks to evaluate subjective judgements of facial expressions of emotions and this injects a major contaminant. This alone is reason enough to reject the claim of the Barrett research.

Paul Ekman's research focuses on those displays which happen, unbidden, as a result of experiencing an emotional episode. We know from the extensive research over the last 40 years that facial expressions of some (7) emotions are displayed universally across cultures, sometimes without consciousness, though they are not always judged accurately. Nor can they be always reconstructed consistently. For example, when some people are asked to draw or imitate a sad face, a common expression we see in the Emotional Intelligence Academy consists of pursed lips, tight eyelids and brows down – similar to when a child sulks. Yet genuine felt sadness is universally displayed with inner brows up, relaxed eyelids and mouth corners down – the first and the third components here being very hard to manipulate at will by most people who are not experiencing sadness. This helps to explain why the Himba tribe members 'mixed up the angry scowls, disgusted grimaces, and sad frowns' when asked to group photographs into piles. Maybe if the researchers had used emotion-based, 'context heavy stories' (e.g. 'a child has died'; 'friends have come') and then photographed the expressions on the faces of the tribe members then this research may have contributed more directly towards the universal display argument.

So has this study helped to stimulate debate? – Yes. Does it successfully argue that 'facial expressions of emotion are not culturally universal' – No. What it might do is help to describe the differences in ability to perceive displays of emotion in certain cultures – though these are not necessarily connected with the evolved, unbidden, facial expressions of emotion that good research has shown to be universal.

Cliff Lansley (March 2014)

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