Show Me a Little Emotion

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.

Works Cited

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.

3 thoughts on “Show Me a Little Emotion

  1. Casey Andrew Schaum

    Good post! I am surprised to hear that guessing a wrong facial expression could be a sign of being a sociopath. It get me curious to how they found that correlation. It seems a little far fetched but I could see how it is possible. I found a cool article that talks about how we read facial expressions. . It explains that we get better at reading facial expressions over time. Another thing it talks about is how calling out someone’s facial expression can be seen as rude. It got me thinking about the possibility of a study that would test to see if someone’s facial expression was actually showing there emotion. There are times in our life when we hide emotion, and facial expression is the first place to do that. Could people be hiding something under their facial expression? I think it would be a good study but would be hard to gather good results as hiding emotion is not easy to do. But who knows, maybe we could see a similar study in the future.

  2. Arianna L Del Valle

    I found the inmates study to be very interesting, but do you think that the study was somehow biased seeing as the people who are in prison generally have had rough lives and naturally tend to look more sad/angry? I have taken tests like these- where you have to distinguish between a series of images of people with different facial expressions- in order to determine my emotional intelligence when I took Psychology in high school. It’s actually really fun, you should try it (!

  3. Hannah Marie Helmes

    This is a very interesting topic. I am very interested in abnormal psychology, especially when it comes to personality disorders like anti-social. If you are interested in learning more about anti-social behavior, you should read this article about Charles Manson: It’s interesting how people with anti-social behavior can be very charismatic.

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