The combination of being social and visually oriented animals has made humans experts at reading each other faces. There are obviously exceptions here and there, but for the most part the hundreds of muscles in our faces that shape the smiles, frowns, scowls and more are such a big part of our lives that we can even take them for granted. For the past 50 years, there’s been a hypothesis that some of these basic expressions were actually ingrained in our brains, and that anyone, anywhere, regardless of other cultural influences, would be able to understand the basic meaning behind a smile or a furrowed brow. This hypothesis is being tested though, and there’s a chance things aren’t as universal as a simple smiley face would have us believe.
If you’re happy and you know it…
Researchers made extended contact with the Trobriander people on some isolated islands on the eastern side of Papua New Guinea. The tribe of 60,000 has minimal contact with the outside world, from television to emoji, and thus could provide a rare example of humans not raised by what is increasingly becoming a globalized culture. If the rest of us have possibly been unavoidably taught that smiles correspond to happiness, the Trobrianders might be able to demonstrate an unadulterated, or at least alternative, interpretation of common facial expressions.
The tests themselves involved asking Trobrianders to select faces from an array of photos that best matched various questions. Sometimes the questions were as straightforward as “who looks happy?” but other people were asked things like “which person is likely to start a fight?” For the most part, there weren’t any surprises, with smiling faces being matched to happiness in each case. However, what most of us would call an angry scowl, as well as a fearful gasp, seemed to complicate things. What researchers saw as a scared or at least surprised expression was consistently associated with anger and threats by the Trobrianders.
Different takes on displeasure
This contrast with more common interpretations opens up a lot of questions about the origins of our facial expressions, and just how malleable they may be. It’s possible that there is still a consistent, shared thread in our emotional expression, but that the language and thought structure we attach to them varies— so a face that many of us read as feeling fear is interpreted by Trobrianders as a face instilling it. Fear is still part of the equation, but how it’s being processed varies enough that we can’t assume that everyone’s faces can be read the same way. This is important to understand not just to know how humans evolved and function, but also for practical uses like the growing number of facial recognition programs and robots that will soon be trying to get a handle on how humans feel, preferably without us having to type in emoji first.
Source: Facial expressions—including fear—may not be as universal as we thought by Michael Price, Science Magazine