"Reading" Others' Emotions Is Often Inaccurate

If you think you’re good at reading peoples’ faces, you might want to think again.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, Northeastern University Distinguished Professor Psychology, has concluded that the widespread belief in universal emotions – i.e. you can read someone from a Third World country just the same as you would someone from the is simply wrong.

“Emotions are not universally perceived, “ Barrett says. Everything that’s predicated on that is a mistake.”

The belief in the universally uniform perception of emotions began with a psychologist named Paul Ekman who traveled to Papua New Guinea and in the 1970s and showed pictures of facial expressions to people who had little exposure to Western culture.

The participants saw the saw emotions as other people who came from different backgrounds. But Barrett says that research was flawed because participants were given a finite number of emotions to choose from.

She went to Namibia and interviewed members of the Himba tribe, which has has very little exposure to the west.

Because the participants weren’t confined to a list of emotions, they were able to answer at greater length what their perception of a photo was.  The same photo would be interpreted as “happy” or “kumisa,” indicating wonder.

A similar disparity was found in listening to vocal samples.

The researchers repeated the experiment in Boston, to compare the perceptions of highly Westernized participants. The results showed that although the participants did better with a finite list of words, they didn’t fare so well without that list.

Barrett and her researchers said their finding indicates that what has been presumed  “psychological universals may actually represent Western or even American culture.

The findings will be published in the journals Emotion and Psychological Science