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?
Forty-six years ago a young San Francisco–based cowboy of a psychologist named Paul Ekman emerged from the jungle with proof of a powerful idea. During the previous couple of years, he had set out trying to prove a theory popularized in the 19th century by Charles Darwin: that people of all ages and races, from all over the world, manifest emotions the same way. Ekman had traveled the globe with photographs that showed faces experiencing six basic emotions—happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, and surprise. Everywhere he went, from Japan to Brazil to the remotest village of Papua New Guinea, he asked subjects to look at those faces and then to identify the emotions they saw on them. To do so, they had to pick from a set list of options presented to them by Ekman. The results were impressive. Everybody, it turned out, even preliterate Fore tribesmen in New Guinea who’d never seen a foreigner before in their lives, matched the same emotions to the same faces. Darwin, it seemed, had been right.
Ekman’s findings energized the previously marginal field of emotion science. Suddenly, researchers had an objective way to measure and compare human emotions—by reading the universal language of feeling written on the face. In the years that followed, Ekman would develop this idea, arguing that each emotion is like a reflex, with its own circuit in the brain and its own unique pattern of effects on the face and the body. He and his peers came to refer to it as the Basic Emotion model—and it had significant practical applications. In the late 1960s, for example, Ekman realized that he could detect the microexpressions of emotion that appear on the face of a liar. Anybody trained in how to properly recognize these microexpressions, he would later argue, could detect a liar 70 percent of the time. He published his first article on the subject in 1969, and three months later the CIA came knocking, eager to learn more.
So began a meteoric rise to fame. Since that first article, Ekman has consulted for not only the CIA but also the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the New York Police Department, and the Transportation Security Administration, which has spent more than a billion dollars training its airport agents in techniques based on Ekman’s theories. He’s published scores of influential papers and books, and his findings have been verified and expanded upon in hundreds of studies. In 2001 the American Psychological Association named him one of the most influential psychologists of the entire 20th century. And in 2009 Time named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Ekman is a giant in his field, in other words. His ideas have powerfully shaped the science of emotion for half a century. But here’s the thing: What if he’s wrong?
“Honestly, this is going to sound terrible,” Lisa Barrett told me when I asked her about Ekman and his original study. “But at first, when I read that work, I thought, Well, nobody can take this seriously. This can’t possibly be right. It’s too cartoonish.”
Barrett is a professor of psychology at Northeastern, and for years she’s been troubled by Ekman’s ideas. People don’t display and recognize emotions in universal ways, she believes, and emotions themselves don’t have their own places in the brain or their own patterns in the body. Instead, her research has led her to conclude that each of us constructs them in our own individual ways, from a diversity of sources: our internal sensations, our reactions to the environments we live in, our ever-evolving bodies of experience and learning, our cultures.
This may seem like nothing more than a semantic distinction. But it’s not. It’s a paradigm shift that has put Barrett on the front lines of one of the fiercest debates in the study of emotion today, because if Barrett is correct, we’ll need to rethink how we interpret mental illness, how we understand the mind and self, and even what psychology as a whole should become in the 21st century.
Twenty-one years ago, Barrett had no idea she’d be wading into this debate. In 1992 she was just another graduate student studying clinical psychology at the University of Waterloo—the MIT of Canada. She had every intention of becoming a therapist. True, she was unusually engrossed in the research side of her program. But the general type of study she was doing, exploring how people’s perceptions of themselves can lead to either anxiety or depression, was the perfect choice for a future shrink.
Times were hard for her back then. Her marriage was in tatters, her thesis adviser had just left town, she was in the middle of grueling comprehensive exams, and every time she attempted to run studies necessary for her research, they failed. In one particularly troublesome experiment, no one she tested could seem to distinguish anxiety from depression—even though differentiating the two was the entire point of the experiment. “If they reported feeling sad,” Barrett told me, “they also felt anxious. And if they reported feeling anxious, they also felt sad. And I thought, Well, can’t they tell the difference?” Every paper she read told her that they were two different emotional states of mind—one based in fear, the other in sadness.
It was a puzzle. Colleagues suggested that it was probably just normal statistical error and urged her to move on. But she couldn’t drop it. She’d already triple-checked her study design and crosschecked her subjects. What was left? She eventually decided it had to be the testing measures that she and others had been using. These, she realized, were actually useless when it came to assessing whether a person felt bad and worked up about it (anxious) or bad and lethargic about it (depressed). And that, in turn, called into question many of the supposedly successful studies that her work had been designed to replicate. Barrett wrote her work up, defended her Ph.D., did a clinical internship at the University of Manitoba, and then packed up for University Park, Pennsylvania, to start life as an assistant professor of psychology at Penn State.