About-Face: Rethinking Emotions

Download Audio
Faces (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)
Faces (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

Nearly a half-century ago, a psychologist named Paul Ekman set out to see if human beings, from Papua New Guinea to Pittsburgh, showed emotions in the same way.

He went around the world, showing photographs of faces and asked people to identify the emotions shown: fear, sadness, anger, disgust, surprise. What he found, in short, was that emotions are universal.

It became one of the most recognized psychological works in the world. The findings are in the first chapter in most psychology textbooks. They're the basis for the multimillion-dollar industry built on studying facial expressions, taught to FBI agents, marketing executives, cops and spies.

And they might be all wrong.


Lisa Barrett, professor of psychology at Northeastern University. You can find some of her papers here and here.


Boston Magazine: "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."

This segment aired on July 19, 2013.


More from Radio Boston

Listen Live