Lisa Feldman Barrett: Can We Really Tell How Other People Are Feeling?

Mar 9, 2018

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Decoding Our Emotions.

About Lisa Feldman Barrett's TED Talk

Identifying basic emotions in others — like fear, sadness or anger — seems instinctive, but psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett says we're doing more guesswork than we think.

About Lisa Feldman Barrett

Lisa Feldman Barrett is Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, with appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. She has studied emotion in the brain for over 25 years, and her most recent book is called How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life Of The Brain.

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When you think about the science of emotions, what was like the traditional, you know, scientific view of them?

LISA FELDMAN BARRETT: Well, when I entered graduate school, the assumption was that your brain comes prewired with the so-called basic emotions - anger, sadness, fear, disgust, happiness and surprise.

RAZ: This is Lisa Feldman Barrett. She's professor of psychology at Northeastern and a researcher at Harvard Medical School. And Lisa is at the forefront of changing, even upending some of our old assumptions about emotions.

BARRETT: The assumption is that our brains come prewired to make these emotions and that when something trips one of these circuits, you know, let's say fear, that we will have a very specific physical response. Heart rate will go up. And maybe we'll freeze. Our faces will make a particular expression that displays the emotion on the face for others to see and recognize universally and that that will reveal to you, kind of like a fingerprint, what emotional state someone is in.

RAZ: And do you think that's true? I mean, do emotions apply to all people universally across the board?

BARRETT: No, they don't. We know that all of these emotion categories appear in many cultures, but they also fail to appear in some cultures. For example, sadness doesn't occur in Tahitian. And in Russian, there are multiple sadnesses, not just one. And the point is that, you know, no set of physical sensations has a purely psychological meaning that is constant across all instances and all people. People often phrase the question as to say, does a human brain come prewired with the capacity to make anger, sadness, fear, disgust and so on? And the answer is no.

RAZ: Lisa Feldman Barrett spoke about her ideas from the TED stage.


BARRETT: My research lab sits about a mile from where several bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon in 2013. The surviving bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of Chechnya, was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Now, when a jury has to make the decision between life in prison and the death penalty, they base their decision largely on whether or not the defendant feels remorseful for his actions. Tsarnaev spoke words of apology, but when jurors looked at his face, all they saw was a stone-faced stare. Now, Tsarnaev is guilty. He murdered and maimed innocent people, and I'm not here to debate that. But as a scientist, I have to tell you that jurors do not and cannot detect remorse or any other emotion in anybody ever, neither can I and neither can you. And that's because emotions are not what we think they are. I have studied emotions as a scientist for the past 25 years.

And in my lab, we have probed human faces by measuring electrical signals that cause your facial muscles to contract to make facial expressions. We have scrutinized the human body in emotion. We have analyzed hundreds of physiology studies involving thousands of test subjects, and the results of these of all of this research is overwhelmingly consistent. Emotions are guesses. The way that we see emotions in others are deeply rooted in predictions, right?

So to us, it feels like we just look at someone's face and we just read the emotion that's there in their facial expressions the way that we would read words on a page. But actually, under the hood, your brain is predicting. It's using past experience based on similar situations to try to make meaning. So the lesson here is that emotions that you seem to detect in other people actually come in part from what's inside your own head.


RAZ: So we think - we think that we have this intuitive ability to sense how someone's feeling just by looking at them, right? We make assumptions about how people are feeling based on their facial, you know, micro...

BARRETT: Movements.

RAZ: Micro movements, right, or their body language.

BARRETT: For sure, for sure.

RAZ: And what you're saying is that that is actually - there's no scientific basis in making that prediction except that we're not always wrong. In fact, we're often right, and we often do this pretty well. So is that just because we're lucky?

BARRETT: Here's what we know. We know that there is no single objective fingerprint, single objective measure, for any emotion that holds across instances, across people, across cultures. My husband, for example, makes a full-on scowling face when he is thinking very deeply. People often will say to him, are you angry? And he'll say, no, I'm not angry. I'm thinking. And it's really tempting, you know, to believe that your confidence that you're right means that you can read people beautifully. But the fact is when you perceive emotion in someone else, you're just guessing. Is it ever possible to guess correctly? I would say of course it's possible to guess correctly. We do it all the time.

RAZ: Except you're guessing.

BARRETT: Well, sure, but I'm guessing when I give you a dollar bill that you'll accept it, too, as money. It's just a pretty good guess. A lot of the time, our guesses are right. But sometimes, our guesses are drastically wrong. For example, women over the age of 65 are more likely to die of a heart attack than men. And the reason why - one reason why - is that when they show up to emergency rooms with symptoms, they and their physicians believe that they are anxious, that they're experiencing anxiety. And so they send women home who have a heart attack and die instead of sending them for tests as they're more likely to do with a man. And so, again, a drastic misperception, and there are real consequences for that.


BARRETT: And so here's my concern. Tech companies, which shall remain nameless - well, maybe not. You know, Google, Facebook...


BARRETT: ...Are spending millions of research dollars to build emotion detection systems. And they are fundamentally asking the wrong question because they're trying to detect emotions in the face and the body, but emotions aren't in your face and body. Physical movements have no emotional meaning. We have to make them meaningful. A human or something else has to connect them to the context, and that makes them meaningful. That's how we know that, you know, a smile might mean sadness and a cry might mean happiness and a stoic, still face might mean that you are angrily plotting the demise of your enemy.

Now, if I haven't already, you know, gone out on a limb, I'll just edge out on that limb a little further and tell you that the way that you experience your own emotion is exactly the same process. Your brain is basically making predictions, guesses, that it's constructing in the moment with billions of neurons working together.


RAZ: OK. So what I'm wondering is if our emotions like fear or anger and all the others are, you know, as you say, just guesses or predictions, do they have any real intrinsic meaning?

BARRETT: Well, I think I would answer that question in two parts. If you're asking me does anger have an intrinsic meaning, I would say no. It has no intrinsic meaning. If you say does an instance of anger have an intrinsic meaning in a particular situation, I might be tempted to more likely say yes. For you, in that situation, anger is REAL. It's very real. It's real in the same way that money is real. It's real in the same way that even something like the presidency - you know, the president has powers not because the president is endowed with those powers by nature but because we all agreed that the president has powers, right? That was even true of kings and queens. People used to believe they had intrinsic powers from God, but, actually, they just had power because we all just agreed that they had power, and then they did.

RAZ: So it's real because we believe it's real.

BARRETT: Yeah. Not only do we believe it's real, I would say we believe it's real and so it becomes real because we believe it's real. It's a little bit like your question of - everybody's question really - is emotions - are emotions hardwired or are they cultural artifacts? And I would say, well, that's a false dichotomy. They are cultural artifacts that are made in your brain. Your brain is a cultural artifact to some extent. You have the kind of brain that allows us to transmit culture by wiring the brains of the next generation to make perceptions and experiences in the same way that we do. And so similarly, I would say emotions are real. They're absolutely real, but they are real in a very situated way because we've learned and agree on how to make sense of particular sensations in particular situations. So in that sense, they really are a function of our collective imagination.


RAZ: Psychologist and researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett. You can find her full talk at

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