Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Nov 21, 2016

Does Human Nature Include an Emotion Signaling System?

by James A. Russell
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By James A. Russell

Humans everywhere easily read each other’s emotions from their faces – facial expressions of basic emotions are universally recognized -- or so we are told in our textbooks.  A new series of studies raises doubts about this claim.

The most famous studies assumed to establish the universality of recognition of emotions from facial expressions were carried out by Paul Ekman, Wallace Friesen, and E. Richard Sorenson, who trekked to Papua New Guinea in 1967 and 1968.  They found a small-scale society, the Fore, that they characterized as a Stone-age people isolated from other human societies.  Ekman and colleagues had with them photographs of Americans showing the hypothesized universal facial expressions of a half dozen or so basic emotions.  Their experiments seemed to show that the Fore were not bewildered by the facial expressions, but recognized what emotion was conveyed. 

Not enough emphasis has been put on one feature of those facial expressions: they were all posed.

A posed facial expression is created with the purpose of conveying one and only one emotion in the clearest way possible.  Many such expressions were photographed, and then the experimenters selected among the photos for the clearest and most expressive.  The question arises, therefore, whether, during emotional episodes, human beings naturally and spontaneously produce the same facial expressions.  And, do other people then recognize the specific emotion from those spontaneous facial expressions?  When emotions were created in the laboratory, recognition of emotion from the resulting facial expressions was weak to non-existent, but perhaps a laboratory setting inhibits expressiveness and fails to produce the intense emotions of everyday life.

During his trips to Papua New Guinea, Paul Ekman photographed spontaneous facial expressions of the Fore as they went about their everyday life.  The Fore did not know about cameras and were therefore not camera-shy.  Ekman found examples of faces he thought expressed the basic emotions and published them in his book, The Face of Man.  This book is an invaluable record, for Ekman knew not only each face, but the expresser’s situation, behavior, and words.

Recently, a research expedition to Papua New Guinea was organized by Jose Miguel Fernandez Dols. He sent a team consisting of a psychologist (Carlos Crivelli), who specializes in methodology, and an anthropologist (Sergio Jarillo), who had established a field station in the Trobriand Islands, which lie to the north of the mainland. The two scientists spent months learning the vernacular and local customs and establishing rapport.  A series of studies was conducted.  In one, the Papua New Guineans were shown Ekman’s photos from The Face of Man

Trobriander adolescents (N = 32, 14 to 17 years) were shown five of the facial expressions -- happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, and disgust-- and asked to use any word they wanted to describe how each person shown felt. Other Trobrianders (N = 24, 12 to 14 years) were shown the same photographs but asked to choose their response from a short list. In both studies, agreement with Ekman’s predicted labels was low: 0 to 16% and 13 to 38% of observers, respectively.

As my colleagues and I conclude in our article, "much evidence confirms that both core affect and basic emotion theory provide at best only a first rough approximation of an account of how people make sense of the facial expressions of others. ... Our results invite the development of new methods, but also new theories that seek a better understanding of facial expressions and their interpretation."


James A. Russell is a Professor of Psychology at Boston College. His research examines the expression and experience of emotion, including developmental and cultural influences.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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