Emotions Aren’t Universal. Their Interpretation Is.

The breadth of emotions that our eyes are able to express is truly far-reaching. From joy to longing, from anger to fear, from sadness to disgust – eyes can become powerful windows to our internal states. We use our eyes to take in the world around us, and to reflect the world within us. To reveal our inner emotional states with our facial expressions and to interpret them accurately is one of the foundations of social interaction.

The biological significance of the face as an instrument for communication starts in infancy. As early as 9 minutes after birth, infants prefer to look at faces rather than objects, and as young as 12 days old, babies have the ability to imitate facial gestures. This ability later contributes to the development of cognitive skills such as language and mentalizing (i.e., understanding others’ intentions).

Not all is straightforward when it comes to reading emotions. Especially when reading emotions across cultures. Despite the universality of basic emotions, as well as the similar facial muscles and neural architecture responsible for emotional expression, people are usually more accurate when judging facial expressions from their own culture than those from others. This can be explained by the existence of idiosyncratic and culture-specific signatures of nonverbal communication. These cultural “accents” influence interactions between nature (biology) and nurture (cultural contexts), which, in turn, affect the perception and interpretation of emotions.

Marianna Pogosyan Ph.D., October, 2016, PsychologyToday.


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