A smile and a frown mean the same thing everywhere—or so say many anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists, who for more than a century have argued that all humans express basic emotions the same way. But a new study of people’s perceptions of computer-generated faces suggests that facial expressions may not be universal and that our culture strongly shapes the way we read and express emotions.
The hypothesis that facial expressions convey the same meaning the world over goes all the way back to Charles Darwin. In his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, the famed naturalist identified six basic emotional states: happiness, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, and sadness. If facial expressions are just cultural traits, passed down through the generations by imitation, their meanings would have diverged by now, he argued.
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