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Universals and Cultural Variations in Emotional Expression


One of the most fascinating characteristics of emotions is that they have universal expressive patterns. These expressions, which are encoded through multiple bodily channels, allow us to identify distinct emotions in ourselves and others. After groundbreaking theorizing by Charles Darwin and early empirical work by Ekman and Izard, further research in emotion science revealed evidence in single cultures for more emotional expressions above and beyond the well-studied set comprising of anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Some of these new emotions were displayed using nonfacial modalities, such as the voice, touch, and posture. Following the logic set forth by these methods and findings, we tested two hypotheses: 1) there are more than seven universal expressions of emotion; 2) expressive universality is not limited to facial expression.

Findings from three cross-cultural experimental studies yielded support to the above hypotheses. Our first study collected 5500 expressions of twenty-one emotions from five different cultures. Spontaneous behavioral analysis revealed core facial and bodily patterns for each of the 21 states across all five cultures. Additionally, we uncovered over 100 cultural variations to the universal patterns and hundreds of individual variations. We concluded from this study that there exist new potential universal expressions above and beyond the well-studied emotions. In a second study, we found that these core patterns were reliably decoded by naïve raters in 10 different countries. In this experiment, non-American participants rated the expressions of American actor-posed stills and acoustic recordings. We concluded that the new expressions were recognized universally and were reliably distinguished from the well-studied emotions anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Furthermore, nonverbal acoustic expressions of emotion were universally recognized at rates comparable to or greater than facial expression.

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