What are common emotions experienced in your culture? In the United States, happiness, anger, sadness, and fear are considered common emotions. The traditional theory of emotion assumes emotions are universally recognized by all humans. This theory dominates pop culture, with movies like Pixar’s Inside Out, which features characters personifying five emotions that coordinate our every action, and items like Amazon’s Halo Watch, which claims to detect emotions based on tone of voice. Yet, it is not possible to determine what emotion someone is experiencing based only on their face or tone of voice. Instead, our brain makes a prediction that is influenced by past experience, the current context, and interoceptive signals from our body (e.g., heart and breathing rate, hunger cues) from a culture-specific perspective (Barrett, 2017). This prediction is made meaningful through language, such as emotion words. However, our brain’s predictions are not always accurate.
So, what does it mean for an emotion to be universal? A universal emotion is an emotion that is associated with a single facial expression across cultures. For example, an American adult, when angry, scowls with pinched eyebrows. If anger was a universal emotion, then a Chinese adult, when angry, would also scowl with pinched eyebrows.
To test whether universal emotions exist, Dr. Paul Ekman and his research team created a set of standardized facial expression images by having actors make exaggerated facial expressions for happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust (Ekman & Friesen, 1976). Anger was represented by a scowl with pinched eyebrows, while fear was represented by raised eyebrows and wide eyes (click here for example pictures from Paul Ekman’s research group). The facial expression for each emotion was based on stereotypes from the United States, but Ekman and his research team still needed to test their facial expression images across cultures to determine if they were universally recognized.
Ekman and his team presented one facial expression image at a time to participants, who were given six emotion words (i.e., happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust) to choose from to describe the image. If participants from various cultures chose the same emotion word to label a facial expression image, it would suggest that particular emotion might be universally recognized. Ekman and his research team tested the recognition of their facial expression images in three different cultures, described as “Western,” “Eastern,” and ”Preliterate” (i.e., Papua New Guinea; Ekman, 1970; Ekman, 1993). Participants in Western and Eastern cultures labeled the facial expression images with the same emotion word around 85% of the time (Ekman, 1971). Interestingly, Preliterate participants also labeled the facial expression images with the “correct” emotion word around 85% of the time, except for the facial expression image for fear (Ekman & Friesen, 1971). Despite evidence of cultural differences in recognizing fear, the traditional theory that happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust are universal emotions has persisted.
It is important to note that Ekman’s task was heavily constrained because participants were given a list of six emotion words to choose from to describe the facial expression images, which biased the participants’ responses. For example, imagine a participant views a facial expression image and identifies two emotions: anger and confusion. If only one of these emotions is included in the word list, then the participant can easily narrow down their options and pick the “correct” response. Indeed, participants in the United States who were not given a word list only labeled the facial expression images with the “correct” emotion word less than 50% of the time (Barrett, 2017). In addition, newer research on the recognition of these facial expression images in other cultures failed to replicate Ekman’s results. For example, when the study was repeated using the Hadza people in north-central Tanzania, participants did not label the facial expression images with the same emotion as Ekman intended (Gendron et al., 2020).
After reading about this study, you might be wondering: what do our faces look like when we are experiencing an emotion? Duran and colleagues examined the facial expressions that participants made when they experienced happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. They found that participants made the same stereotypical facial expression that Ekman used for his standardized images less than 35% of the time (e.g., smiling when happy, or scowling when angry; Duran et al., 2017). Instead, participants made a variety of facial expressions for each emotion they experienced, and they were only understood when their surrounding environment was taken into consideration. For example, a person crying during an award ceremony might be interpreted as happy rather than sad. Similarly, a person that is pinching their eyebrows while studying may be interpreted as concentrating rather than angry.
Humans make sense of various facial expressions by relying on context, past experience, and their own internal state (e.g., heart and breathing rate, hunger cues), which helps our brain make predictions about what emotion someone might be experiencing (Barrett, 2017). For example, if you are experiencing an oncoming stomach flu that makes you feel nauseous, you may be more likely to predict that a stranger is angry. Importantly, this prediction needs to be labeled using emotion words from a given language, meaning that the way one describes an emotion varies across cultures. For example, the English language understands “anger” as a single umbrella category, whereas Mandarin Chinese distinguishes between several different types of “anger” (e.g., shēngqì 生气 means to get mad or take offense, while fènnù 愤怒 means anger/rage; Barrett, 2017).
Based on these studies, the traditional theory’s idea that happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust are universal emotions is oversimplified. In fact, cultures express emotions in different ways that are understood through both context and language-specific emotion words. Given this information, it is important to not assume that stereotypes of emotions in the United States are universal. For example, in the United States, we expect remorseful individuals to cry. However, not all individuals or cultures express remorse in this way. Some people may express remorse with a neutral facial expression, a response that may be interpreted as being “guilty” or “unmoved.” This assumption can have real-world consequences, because people who express remorse differently often serve longer sentences for similar crimes (Corwin et al., 2012; MacLin et al., 2009). Given the diversity of nationalities and languages represented in the United States, we should remember to keep an open mind when interpreting other people’s emotions. Such a perspective will enhance our understanding of how emotions are expressed and viewed by other cultures around the world.
Barrett, L. F. (2017). How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. https://lisafeldmanbarrett.com/books/how-emotions-are-made/
Corwin, E. P., Cramer, R. J., Griffin, D. A., & Brodsky, S. L. (2012). Defendant remorse, need for affect, and juror sentencing decisions. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, 40(1), 41-49. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22396340/
Durán, J. I., Reisenzein, R., & Fernández-Dols, J. M. (2017). Coherence Between Emotions and Facial Expressions. In J. A. Russell & J. M. Fernández-Dols (Eds.), The Science of Facial Expression (pp. 107-129). Oxford Scholarship Online. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190613501.001.0001
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Ekman, P. (1993). Facial expression and emotion. American Psychologist, 48(4), 384. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.48.4.384
Ekman, P. & Friesen, W. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17(2), 124-129. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0030377
Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. (1976). Pictures of Facial Affect. Consulting Psychologists Press. https://www.scirp.org/reference/ReferencesPapers.aspx?ReferenceID=1238187
Gendron, M., Hoemann, K., Crittenden, A. N., Mangola, S. M., Ruark, G. A., & Barrett, L. F. (2020). Emotion perception in Hadza hunter-gatherers. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 3867. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-60257-2
MacLin, M. K., Downs, C., MacLin, O. H., & Caspers, H. M. (2009). The effect of defendant facial expression on mock juror decision-making: The power of remorse. North American Journal of Psychology, 11(2). https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2009-08708-010
Edited by Kat Munley and Evan Leake