It was assumed for a long time that emotion were learned and thus vary and reflect each culture.
Forty years ago, psychologist Paul Ekman took his camera to the island of New Guinea to photograph the faces of the South Fore people. He wanted to prove that the expressions on their faces did not mirror social convention but were universal displays of human emotion.
At the time most anthropologists thought that a smile could convey joy in one culture and disgust in another. Ekman thought otherwise.
In his first research, Ekman showed these very faces and others like them to people in twenty-one different cultures around the world. The viewers were asked to say what emotion was shown. Despite the differences in culture and language, the same emotions were ascribed in each culture. Everyone said the in expression of the top right picture was happy, though they might have used a different word for it. Everyone called the top middle disgust or disdain.
Although Ekman’s experiments showed that people from other cultures could read expressions on North American faces, some protested that exposure to magazines and films might have obscured the differences between cultures, Ekman went to South Fore to try his experiment with people who had never had contact with the outside world. When participants were asked to point to a pictured face that matched the emotion evoked by a particular story — anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness or surprise — they made the same associations as people living elsewhere.
Ekman also asked the participants to show him what their face would look like in different situations. "Show me what your face would look like if you were about to fight." Or "Show me what your face would look like if someone did something you didn’t like but you were not going to fight." Or "Show me what your face would look like if you learned your child had died."