Emotions Transcend Race And Culture: Universal Emotions

By Danni Peck |Updated July 8, 2022

In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, a book published by Charles Darwin in 1872, he theorized that facial expressions of emotions are the same in every human rather than varying as a result of different cultures and upbringings. Dr. Paul Ekman furthered his theory while researching a native tribe in Papua New Guinea. It was there that he discovered the tribe would have the same reactions that other people would when presented with sad, happy, or terrifying situations. These facial expressions would soon become what we now know as the six universal emotions.

Today, a debate still rages as to whether the theory and the evidence presented proves that emotional reactions are universally recognized and expressed. No matter what side of the argument you are on, here are the six universal emotions that we believe all humans express.

1. Joy or Happiness

We all know what it is to be happy but how is it that we express happiness with our faces? According to research, we display our joy by raising the corners of our mouth and tightening our eyelids. The result of our facial expressions is a large smile and squinted eyes.

2. Sadness

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When we experience something that emotionally damages us, we respond by expressing sadness. Sadness is expressed by lowering the corners of the mouth into a frown, lowering the eyelids, and raising the inner corner of the eyebrows while the outer corners remain slanted downwards. Watery eyes or tears will also accompany sadness.

3. Anger

Anger is an unmistakable emotion. When you experience anger, both you and the person it is directed towards will instantly know it. Anger manifests as tightened lips, bulging eyes, and lowered eyebrows that are concentrated towards the gap between the eyebrows.

4. Surprise

Here, surprise is related more to shock than it is to a pleasant or scary surprise, although this expression could come before all emotions. When someone is surprised, their eyes will widen, their eyebrows will arch up, and their jaw will drop slightly, which will make the mouth form a circular or ovular shape.

5. Fear

When someone is afraid, their eyes will widen, and their eyebrows will also raise up. However, fear in the lip region will manifest in the form of lips that stretched out horizontally across the face. There will also be physical symptoms such as sweating and heart palpitations.

6. Disgust

Disgust is an emotion we experience when we deal with something thatis offensive or unpleasant. For example, if you smell something that makes you want to vomit, your reaction will most likely be disgust. How do we show disgust? Disgust forms on our face when we raise our upper lip, wrinkle the bridge of our nose, raise our cheeks, and slightly arch our eyebrows.

7. Contempt (Still Being Debated)

Although it is credited as being a universal emotion, not everyone agrees that it is. Some believe that it is a complex emotion consisting of disgust and anger. We will mention it here for the sake of completeness, however. Contempt appears on our face when we raise one side of our lips. The rest of the face remains relatively neutral in this expression. However, the head is sometimes said to be tilting back when expressing contempt towards someone or something.

Research That Supports the Argument for Universal Emotions

Ekman and other notable psychologists also researched the facial expressions of people who were born blind as well as newborn babies to prove that emotional expressions were innate, not learned.

This research uncovered both newborns and congenitally blind people reacted to emotions in similar ways to the rest of the world. Even research regarding primates and their facial expressions has shown that humans and primates react similarly. These pieces of evidence are perhaps the most compelling in the argument for universal emotions.

There are also groups that are neutral in this feud and side with Ekman, but present theories of their own. For example, some psychologists and researchers believe that there are less than six universal emotions while others believe that there may be far more than the original six presented by Ekman.

The Argument Against Universal Emotions

Those who argue against the theory of universal emotions point out the problem in Ekman’s research from Papua New Guinea. Ekman had apparently given the natives photographs that they were supposed to match with emotions that had been explained to them. People against this theory say that this experiment was biased because it did not allow the natives to come to their conclusions on facial expressions.

Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett and researcher Maria Gendron set out to disprove Ekman’s theory a few years ago. Together, they tested a group of people from two remote villages in Namibia using Ekman’s method and their method, which required the natives to organize groups of photographs into piles that expressed different emotions without having been told what emotions they need to base their piles on.

Their findings for Ekman’s method were an exact match to his own. The natives were able to sort the photographs according to the emotions given. Their findings, however, disputed the claim that emotional expressions are the same regardless of culture. The group that was allowed to sort in whatever way they pleased placed their photographs into piles such as “laughing” or “looking at something.” The natives were unable to identify with any of the emotions that the researchers expected them to.

Barrett, who has set out to explain that emotional expression is not universal, says that emotions are not emotions until they can be explained to us in a way that makes sense to us. She describes emotions as a complex process that varies from person to person depending on how they are feeling and perceiving their reality. Therefore, it could not be a simple bodily response or something that is passed down through our DNA. She also states that emotions technically only have meaning that we have given to them, and we can’t possibly begin to understand the complex processes happening behind the scenes of these “emotions.”

People who are against the universality argument also use Ekman’s research against him. Before his research in Papua New Guinea, Ekman conducted research that used the same method Barrett and Gendron used. Ekman came to the same conclusion that other cultures could not identify emotions based on our description of them.

Additional Emotions Recognized Over Time

As time passed, Ekman began recognizing more and more emotions that seemed to pop up across the faces of all humans. Some of these emotions include embarrassment, guilt, and pride. Why were these not included in the list of universal emotions? Well, as stated above in regards to the controversial 7th emotion, some of these emotions are too complex to find throughout the world.

Some cultures may not have certain emotions that we can find on our own, which makes it hard to describe certain emotions as universal as well. Certain cultures may not be able to perceive these emotions or may be missing them entirely due to religious beliefs and social standards. This is another reason why many people do not support the argument for universal emotional expression.

Along with some of these complex emotions identified by Ekman, he also began to identify something known as micro-expressions. Micro-expressions, as described by the Paul Ekman Group, are “facial expressions that occur within 1/25th of a second”. These types of expressions are involuntary reactions that occur when a person is trying to conceal their true feelings. These expressions also seem to be universal when it comes to human psychology.

Additional Resources About Universal Emotions

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If you’ve found this article to be interesting and informative, there is plenty more research and information online about the subject of universal emotions and related topics. To give you a starting point, here are a few of the websites that were used to produce this content:






While we’re on the topic of emotions, the one thing that does remain universal about them is that we all struggle to try to cope with our own sometimes. If you are having difficulty coping with serious emotions such as anger or sadness, which may indicate a serious mental illness, you should visit https://www.betterhelp.com/start/. BetterHelp is the world’s largest e-counseling platform that provides visitors with access to affordable and convenient online counseling. Take the first step today by clicking on the link above. This link will bring you to a short questionnaire that will help you connect with the right counselor for you!

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