Happy, sad, angry, confused: four basic emotions that those of us who experience empathy can immediately identify in someone else’s facial expression. Or can we? During a sociology class in high school we were shown a series of facial expressions and asked to identify the emotion that person was feeling. If we guessed accurately, it indicated we felt empathy, if not we were told it was indicative of anti-social behavior and the marker of a sociopath. I always wondered how accurate this test was and how universally it could be applied. This is an important topic because, not only does this have ramifications for the study of psychopathy but also for developing artificial intelligence technologies that attempt to recognize facial expressions.
In a 2008 study conducted on inmates published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, doctors Hastings, Tangney, and Stuewig found that psychopath was negatively correlated with facial recognition of both sad and happy emotions. The inmates were tested using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist: Screening Version the field standard screening process that tests for psychopathic personality disorders. I couldn’t help but wonder how universally these tests could be administered as both the Hare Psychopathy Checklist and the aforementioned study that utilized it are studies conducted in the western world. Could these same standards be applied to different cultures and peoples?
A recent article published in Science suggests that it may not as facial expressions are not necessarily universal. Studies conducted with isolated peoples in Papua New Guinea found that facial expressions may be cultural constructs. The Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea recognized expressions that you and I would read as shock or fear as angry and threatening. This divergence suggests that expressions of emotion are not universally understood.
I would be interested to find out what would happen if tests that are the standard in the west, like the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, were administered to peoples of vastly different cultures. I would also be interested to see if there was a way to test these theories in a double-blind, controlled study as they are far more reliable.
Hastings, Mark E., June P. Tangney, and Jeff Stuewig. “Psychopathy and Identification of Facial Expressions of Emotion.” Personality and Individual Differences. U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2008. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.
“Multi-Health Systems — Home.” Multi-Health Systems — Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
Price, Michael. “Facial Expressions—including Fear—may Not Be as Universal as We Thought.” Science (2016): n. pag. Web.