Are expressions westernised?


Are expressions westernised?

It is a known fact that there are six primary emotions everybody is capable of feeling. Those are happiness, fear, sadness, anger, surprise, and disgust. Subsequently, we express each of these emotions using more or less the same set of facial movements. It makes recognising these emotions very easy. The person’s background and credentials then hardly matter.


Lisa Feldman Barrett, however, begs to differ. She is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University. What’s more, she has found that these facts are not true. Barrett has been at it for almost two decades now. Her research and efforts have finally paid off as she now owns the proof to disprove the earlier beliefs. Her two research papers are to publish in the popular journals Psychological Science and Emotion. Barrett has questioned, through her papers, the very base of emotion science. “Emotions are not universally perceived. Everything that’s predicated on that is a mistake.”


The falsity came into light due to Paul Ekman’s research in the 1970s. This young psychologist traveled to Papua New Guinea to test the universal applicability of emotions. He showed a series of pictures with basic expressions to two sets of people. One was Americans whereas the other was of the remote south seas island. The result was definitive – subjects’ answers didn’t differ at all.


However, Barrett delved in more to explore new layers of this surface-level experiment. She, with Maria Gendron and a few other members, went on to The Himba. It is a tribe with the least influence by the Westerners. The team spent almost two months, paving a path to their research by the day and spending the night atop their cars. The results? She didn’t find any universal emotions in them.


Gendron put forth 36 photos of faces with the basic expressions. She asked the subjects to freely divide the photos into groups with the same expressions. “A universal solution would have six piles labeled with words used for emotions,” said Barrett. “That was not what we recorded.” The experiment saw more than six piles of photos with fewer emotion words to desribe them. When it came to vocalising, interpretation of the same sounds was different by different subjects.


Gendron and Barrett then performed the same experiment in Boston. Then they compared the results they got with those of The Himba tribe. The results, as expected, were very different. Gendron observed that the participants in Boston labeled the expressions with the expected terms. However, they fared better when the words became a part of the task. “This indicates that what we assume to be ‘psychological universals’ may in fact be ‘Western’ cultural categories.”


Pranjali Wakde

pranjali wakde

No Comments

Post a Comment