People are experts at perceiving subtle nonverbal expressions and inferring the underlying emotions. Evidence suggests that part of this challenging perceptual task is accomplished through embodied simulation processes, in which the perceiver's brain and facial muscles partially recreate the perceived expression and associated emotion. Our lab and others have demonstrated that interfering with people's facial muscles while they look at facial expressions reduces the accuracy with which they can perceptually discriminate between and judge the meaning of various emotions. For instance, wearing a gel facemask that constricts facial movement disrupts people's ability to detect a facial expression next to a highly similar distractor (Wood, Lupyan, Sherrin, & Niedenthal, 2015). We also have a long-term collaboration with the UW Facial Nerve Clinic that will allow us to test, among other things, the impact of facial paralysis on emotion perception and experience. See our recent TiCS article for more on this idea.
My colleague Magdalena Rychlowska demonstrated the predictive validity of a currently underutilized cultural dimension called cultural heterogeneity
. First described by Putterman and Weil (2010), heterogeneity refers to the number of source countries that contributed to a country's current population in the last 500 years. Eighty-three countries have made significant contributions to the current population of the U.S., a highly heterogeneous country, but only 5 countries contributed to Russia's current population, making it relatively homogeneous. Rychlowska et al. (2015) demonstrated that more heteregeneous cultures endorse greater emotional expressivity, even when controlling for other important cultural dimensions like individualism-collectivism. We re-analyzed data from 92 cross-cultural emotion recognition studies (involving 82 unique countries) to test the prediction that facial expressions from more heterogeneous cultures are better recognized cross-culturally than those from homogeneous cultures (Wood, Rychlowska, & Niedenthal, 2016). You can read more about these ideas here
This map depicts the number of source countries that contribute to a country's current population. Darker countries are more heterogeneous. Map generated here
My advisor, Paula Niedenthal, and I have developed an interest in the relationship between emotion concepts and words and emotions per se. We are exploring possible explanations for why labeling emotions tends to attenuate them.