About Face: Emotions and Facial Expressions May Not Be Related

For half a century, one theory about the way we experience and express emotion has helped shape how we practice psychology, do police work, and even fight terrorism. But what if that theory is wrong?
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Photographs by Jesse Burke

Barrett recently decided to take on Ekman’s ideas directly, by sending a small research team to visit the isolated Himba tribe in Namibia, in southern Africa. The plan was this: The team, led by Maria Gendron, would do a study similar to Ekman’s original cross-cultural one, but without providing any of the special words or context-heavy stories that Ekman had used to guide his subjects’ answers. Barrett’s researchers would simply hand a jumbled pile of different expressions (happy, sad, fearful, angry, disgusted, and neutral) to their subjects, and would ask them to sort them into six piles. If emotional expressions are indeed universal, they reasoned, then the Himba would put all low-browed, tight-lipped expressions into an anger pile, all wrinkled-nose faces into a disgust pile, and so on.

It didn’t happen that way. The Himba sorted some of the faces in ways that aligned with Ekman’s theory: smiling faces went into one pile, wide-eyed fearful faces went into another, and affectless faces went mostly into a third. But in the other three piles, the Himba mixed up angry scowls, disgusted grimaces, and sad frowns. Without any suggestive context, of the kind that Ekman had originally provided, they simply didn’t recognize the differences that leap out so naturally to Westerners.

Barrett, Gendron, and two others wrote a paper based on this study, which Barrett considers one of her most important to date, and submitted it to Science this past December, with high hopes for its publication. “What we’re trying to do,” she told me, “is to just get people to pay attention to the fact that there’s a mountain of evidence that does not support the idea that facial expressions are universally recognized as emotional expressions.” That’s the crucial point, of course, because if we acknowledge that, then the entire edifice that Paul Ekman and others have been constructing for the past half-century comes tumbling down. And all sorts of things that we take for granted today—how we understand ourselves and our relationships with others, how we practice psychology and psychiatry, how we do police work and gather intelligence—will have to change.

 

This past January, I visited Barrett at her home. She was tired. Two colleagues had just died in quick succession, and she’d gone to both of their memorials the week before. She was scheduled to fly out again in a couple of days for a debate at a psychology conference in New Orleans. And she’d just heard back from Science about the Namibia paper. The news wasn’t good: They’d rejected it.

“I felt fed up,” she told me, describing her reaction. “I just felt like, Why am I banging my head against a wall? Life is short. What the hell am I doing? Clearly people don’t give a shit about data, because if they did, I wouldn’t have this battle on my hands.” She paused. “I did feel that way for about 10 minutes. And then I took a step back and said, ‘Okay, I’ve seen reviews like this before.’”

Barrett showed me the feedback she’d received on the manuscript from two anonymous peer reviewers. One had been positive, but the other had written a scathing two-page response that had started by declaring the work “unjustified” and gone downhill from there. Barrett told me she suspected the second reviewer had misunderstood her statistical methods and had based several of his or her arguments on misrepresented sources. Nevertheless, she’s now adopted a philosophical stance toward it all. “Science is about persevering in the face of ambiguity and, oftentimes, adversity,” she says. “And the data, in the end, will point the way.”

It’s early days yet. Barrett’s theory is still only in its infancy. But other researchers are beginning to take up her ideas, sometimes in part, sometimes in full, and where the science will take us as it expands is impossible to predict. It’s even possible that Barrett will turn out to be wrong, as she herself acknowledges. “Every scientist has to face that,” she says. Still, if she is right, then perhaps the most important change we’ll need to make is in our own heads. If our emotions are not universal physiological responses but concepts we’ve constructed from various biological signals and stashed memories, then perhaps we can exercise more control over our emotional lives than we’ve assumed.

“Every experience you have now is seeding your experience for the future,” Barrett told me. “Knowing that, would you choose to do what you’re doing now?” She paused a beat and looked me in the eye. “Well? Would you? You are the architect of your own experience.”