Humans interpret others’ facial behavior, such as frowns and smiles, and guide their behavior accordingly, but whether such interpretations are pancultural or culturally specific is unknown. In a society with a great degree of cultural and visual isolation from the West—Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea—adolescents interpreted a gasping face (seen by Western samples as conveying fear and submission) as conveying anger and threat. This finding is important not only in supporting behavioral ecology and the ethological approach to facial behavior, as well as challenging psychology’s approach of allegedly pancultural “basic emotions,” but also in applications such as emotional intelligence tests and border security.
Theory and research show that humans attribute both emotions and intentions to others on the basis of facial behavior: A gasping face can be seen as showing “fear” and intent to submit. The assumption that such interpretations are pancultural derives largely from Western societies. Here, we report two studies conducted in an indigenous, small-scale Melanesian society with considerable cultural and visual isolation from the West: the Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Our multidisciplinary research team spoke the vernacular and had extensive prior fieldwork experience. In study 1, Trobriand adolescents were asked to attribute emotions, social motives, or both to a set of facial displays. Trobrianders showed a mixed and variable attribution pattern, although with much lower agreement than studies of Western samples. Remarkably, the gasping face (traditionally considered a display of fear and submission in the West) was consistently matched to two unpredicted categories: anger and threat. In study 2, adolescents were asked to select the face that was threatening; Trobrianders chose the “fear” gasping face whereas Spaniards chose an “angry” scowling face. Our findings, consistent with functional approaches to animal communication and observations made on threat displays in small-scale societies, challenge the Western assumption that “fear” gasping faces uniformly express fear or signal submission across cultures.Added note: My thanks to the commenter below who forwarded this relevant 2009 article: Spontaneous Facial Expressions of Emotion of Congenitally and Noncongenitally Blind Individuals