It is common sense — espoused by “Sesame Street” and psychology textbooks alike — that humans have distinct emotions, each with characteristic expressions. When you’re angry, you furrow your brow and yell. When you’re sad, you frown and cry. Charles Darwin hypothesized that human emotions have evolved just as physical features have, and the psychologist Paul Ekman, known for his work on microexpressions, has traveled the world showing that people everywhere recognize the same facial movements as expressing the same emotions — anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.

A few psychologists, including Lisa Barrett of Northeastern University, are upending this view. In two new papers, she and her collaborators test the notion of universal emotional expression among a group of people living in a remote region of Namibia. Their results, showing big cultural differences in emotional recognition, have strong implications for therapy, the law, business and even national security.

Foreign faces

In one set of studies, published in Psychological Science, a team led by Maria Gendron, a member of Barrett’s lab, had participants listen to vocalizations for nine emotions (for example, laughter for amusement and a scream for fear) and think of a single word to describe each feeling. The researchers tested two groups of participants: visitors to the Boston Museum of Science and members of the Himba ethnic group in a mountainous part of Namibia. The Americans guessed all nine emotions better than chance. But the Himba succeeded only with amusement. Their accuracy fell below 5 percent for seven of the nine emotions (anger, disgust, relief, sadness, sensory pleasure, surprise and triumph). Even something as simple as screaming “Woohoo!” in a moment of exulting appears to be culturally specific.

In a study published in the journal Emotion, again led by Gendron, American and Himba participants interpreted facial expressions. Participants received 36 photographs of African-Americans making expressions that were meant to depict five emotions (sadness, anger, disgust, fear, happiness) and neutrality. Participants were asked to sort them into as many piles as they liked, as long as every face in each pile depicted the same emotion; participants then labeled the piles however they wished.

Americans sorted their piles into smiling (happy), scowling (angry), wide-eyed (fearful) and neutral faces, with the pouting (sad) and nose-wrinkled (disgusted) faces mixed together. Himba participants made separate piles of happy and fearful faces, but formed groups for the rest that were incoherent, according to American categories. And they tended to label the piles using descriptions of the facial actions rather than mental states. “We demonstrated that facial expressions are not universally recognized in discrete emotional terms,” the researchers write.

Context is key

Serena Williams
Serena Williams at the 2008 U.S. Open, after beating her sister Venus.
Matthew Stockman / Getty Images

So how do we understand people’s facial expressions in the real world? By looking at context and constructing an interpretation. “We’re not recognizing emotion in another person. We are perceiving it,” Barrett told me. In one paper she includes a close-up photograph of Serena Williams with an agonized look on her face. You’d think she just stubbed her toe. Zoom out and you see she’s pumping her fist. Suddenly you are perceiving something very different: triumph.

Barrett says her team’s results are evidence for her conceptual-act theory of emotion, in which emotions are not natural categories with distinct signatures in the brain and behavior but rather “constructed events that arise in the moment from a set of more basic ingredients.” Components such as arousal and a positive or negative mood are situationally and linguistically filtered to form an experience of a particular emotion, and such interpretations are malleable. One recent study found that subjects could improve their karaoke performances by reappraising their anxiety as excitement; they simply said to themselves, “I am excited.” Controversially, Barrett believes the emotional palette itself (not just facial and vocal expressions) can differ among people and cultures. Furthermore, that the Himba used labels related to actions rather than mental states to describe their piles of photos suggests that they have not just different emotional categories but a different idea of what emotion is.

Maybe that flicker of the eyes is completely unrelated to the malignant emotion you’ve been primed to spot.

Psychologists have argued that emotions evolved to serve many functions, one of which is to signal our beliefs or intentions to others. Anger, for instance, can act as a threat. Barrett’s work doesn’t upend this evolutionary view, but it shows that there’s some flexibility in how we learn to express our internal states.

Why the grimace?

It’s important to face up to the fact that not everyone expresses and recognizes emotion in the same way. “The applications are endless,” Barrett says. “Anytime you’re interacting with someone, you’re trying to infer their intentions.” Picture yourself on a first date and the person across from you wrinkles her brow. Without knowing her well, you might think she didn’t like your joke, when she meant to convey thoughtfulness (or was noticing that the wine is corked). Playing poker, you think you know an opponent’s hand based on his pursed lips, whereas his mother could have told you otherwise.

Therapists, too, need to understand what’s going through their clients’ heads to interpret their emotional expressions correctly (just as patients need to know that about their therapists). They may also need practice associating a particular person’s expressions and vocalizations with particular mind-sets.

Business partners from different cultures could construe expressions differently as well. Lifted eyebrows might mean one thing in the U.S. and another in Japan or Russia. “The world is only flat,” Barrett says, “if you can read the emotions and intentions of people from other cultures. And in order to do that, you have to know something about the language and customs and culture of those other people.”

The consequences for national security might be most telling. Law enforcement agencies have been trained in techniques to help detect deception, anxiety and criminal intent. But they may be focusing too much on facial or body language and not enough on the scene around the suspect (let alone his individual background). Maybe that flicker of the eyes is completely unrelated to the malignant emotion you’ve been primed to spot.

In fact, in November the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report that stated that the Transportation Security Administration’s program for screening passenger behavior produces results that are “the same as or slightly better than chance.” According to the review, the TSA has wasted about a billion dollars of taxpayer money. The problem is that it based its program too heavily on Ekman’s research. Recall the difficulty in reading Williams’ emotions from just her face. If you see an airline passenger grimace, is he anxious about his planned attack? Did he just stub his toe? Has he forgotten his toothbrush? Is his underwear bomb starting to chafe? Is he recalling a lost poker game? You can’t know.

“A face doesn’t speak for itself,” Barrett says



The distinction between cosmetic surgery and other types of surgery such as reconstructive surgery is that cosmetic surgery involves techniques intended for the ‘enhancement’ of appearance. Cosmetic surgery involves both surgical and medical techniques and it is specifically concerned with maintaining normal appearance, restoring it, or enhancing it beyond the average level toward some aesthetic ideal. Cosmetic procedures have grown in popularity dramatically, in 2006, nearly 11 million cosmetic procedures were performed in the United States alone. The number of cosmetic procedures performed in the United States has increased over 50 percent since the start of the century. Nearly 12 million cosmetic procedures were performed in 2007. In Europe, the second largest market for cosmetic procedures, cosmetic surgery is a $2.2 billion business. Cosmetic surgery is now very common in countries such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. In Asia, cosmetic surgery has become an accepted practice; currently most widely prevalent and normal in China where it is currently Asia’s biggest cosmetic surgery market1. Proponents argue that the risks inherent in surgery that is not medically necessary are too great and that women are merely succumbing to the pressures of men. Opponents, in contrast, argue women have a right to choose both how they look and what methods they choose to get to how they look. This debate will examine whether cosmetic surgery should be banned.


The compulsion to change one’s body is often a symptom of a deeper mental instability. It should be treated as a problem, not encouraged with surgery. Research indicating that breast augmentation patients are four times more likely to commit suicide compared to other plastic surgery patients raises questions about the mental health of women who choose implants1. It’s only a plaster patched over a much deeper problem. There are also studies that show negative psychological effects on patients after their surgery has been completed. For example, a recent analysis 37 studies on patients’ psychological and psychosocial functioning before and after cosmetic surgery by social worker Roberta Honigman and psychiatrists Katherine Phillips, MD, and David Castle, MD, found several predictors of poor outcomes, especially for those who hold unrealistic expectations or have a history of depression and anxiety. The researchers found that patients who are dissatisfied with surgery may request repeat procedures or experience depression and adjustment problems, social isolation, family problems, self-destructive behaviours and anger towards the surgeon and his or her staff.

However, the vast majority of people who have cosmetic surgery have one procedure and never look back. They’re made happier and more secure in themselves because of it. In fact, the same study by social worker Roberta Honigman and psychiatrists Katherine Phillips, MD, and David Castle, MD, also suggested positive outcomes in some patients, including improvements in body image and possibly a boost in their quality of life as well1. Therefore, it would be wrong to say that cosmetic surgery can be psychologically damaging as a rule. Many studies have shown that patients have higher self-esteem after surgery. For example, in a recent study by Sarwer found that a year after receiving cosmetic surgery, 87 per cent of patients reported satisfaction following their surgery, including improvements in their overall body image and the body feature altered. They also experienced less negative body image emotions in social situations

Sometimes we must accept those dangers, as they come in the course of necessary medical procedures. But with elective surgery– procedures people don’t need, but rather merely want – the risks can’t be justified. These risks apply both to the surgery itself, and to the long term. For example, leaking silicone breast implants have been a widespread problem and can lead to death. Silicone gel can leak from the implant into healthy breast tissue and go other parts of your body, such as the lungs and lymph nodes, where it could be impossible to remove. Studies published in 2001 by scientists at the National Cancer Institute raised questions about the long-term safety of breast implants. One study found that women who had breast implants for at least eight years were twice as likely to die from brain cancer, three times as likely to die from lung cancer or other respiratory diseases, and four times as likely to commit suicide, compared to other plastic surgery patients A second study found that women with breast implants for at least eight years were 21% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer compared to other women their age.

The risks of cosmetic surgery are negligible.In actual fact, the American Society of Plastic Surgery estimates that there is 1 death in 57,000 procedures, while a study in the medical journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery put the mortality rate slightly higher, at about one in 51,459 operations. To put this in perspective, your chances of being injured in a motor vehicle accident are about 1 in 1,000 in any given year and there is about 1 maternal death for every 7692 live births. Therefore cosmetic surgery is a lot safer than people perceive. Furthermore, cosmetic surgery is becoming safer and safer. It is increasingly strictly policed and sky-high legal pay-outs by bad surgeons have ensured that practitioners take more and more care. Technology in surgery and in implants and so forth is forever improving. For example, new non-invasive procedures are being developed such as Liposonix and UltraShape Contour. These procedures use focused ultrasound devices which aim to achieve targeted reduction of fat tissue by focusing ultrasound energy that causes permanent disruption of fat cells without damage to the epidermis, dermis or underlying tissues and organs.



In the wake of the shocking events of 11 September 2001, terrorism and the “war on terror” became the number one issue for the US government. But terrorism has a far longer, more global history.

Political, religious and national/ethnic groups have resorted to violence to pursue their objectives – whether full recognition of their equal citizenship (in Apartheid South Africa), a separate national state of their own (Israelis in the 1940s, Palestinians from the 1970s onwards), or the establishment of a religious/ideological state (Iranian terrorism against the Shah). In some cases former terrorists have made the transition to peaceful politics – for example Nelson Mandela in South Africa and Gerry Adams in Northern Ireland. Is it possible to justify the use of terrorist tactics if they result in the deaths of innocent civilians in bombings and shootings? This is an issue that calls into question the value we put on our ideals, beliefs and human life itself.

Points: Legitimacy

In extreme cases, in which peaceful and democratic methods have been exhausted, it is legitimate and justified to resort to terror. In cases of repression and suffering, with an implacably oppressive state and no obvious possibility of international relief, it is sometimes necessary to resort to violence to defend one’s people and pursue one’s cause.

Every individual or (minority) group has the right to express its discontent. The state, being a representation of the people, should facilitate this possibility. Even more, the state should support the rights of minorities, in order to prevent the will of the majority suppressing the rights of people with other interests. If this does not happen, the state has failed to serve its purpose and loses its legitimacy. This, in combination with the growing inequalities and injustices amongst certain groups, justifies committing acts of terror in order to defend these rights, that were denied in the first place.

For instance, Umkhonto we Sizwe, a liberation organisation associated with the African National Congress in South Africa and led by Nelson Mandela, decided in 1961 to turn to violence in order to achieve liberation and the abolishment of Apartheid. The reason they gave was:

“The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. (…) Refusal to resort to force has been interpreted by the government as an invitation to use armed force against the people without any fear of reprisals. The methods of Umkhonto we Sizwe mark a break with that past.”


Terrorism is never justified. Peaceful and democratic means must always be used. If this cannot happen inside the state, there are international courts such as the International Criminal Court in the The Hague, which handle cases such as war crimes and oppression. Even when democratic rights are denied, non-violent protest is the only moral action. And in the most extreme cases, in which subject populations are weak and vulnerable to reprisals from the attacked state, it is especially important for groups not to resort to terror. Terrorism merely exacerbates a situation, and creates a cycle of violence and suffering.

Here are some points to think about:

  1. Terrorism can lead to discussion (think about how this may be a good point for or against)
  2. Terrorism can bring attention
  3. Terrorism is relative

Monday 3/17/14

March 7, 2014

Single motherhood and shame in South Korea

South Korea is a country that has long valued the traditional family unit over single parent households.

Due to this, unwed mothers in South Korea often face discrimination from employers, their family and schools.

One single mother regularly found her six year-old daughter isolated in a room by herself at daycare.

“It was because other mothers were aware that she was a child of an unwed mother and didn’t want her to mingle with their children,” Kim says, talking about a friend.

“Now she goes to elementary school, but during her kindergarten period she had trouble making good connections with others.”

This experience is just one of many that single mothers face to raise their children in South Korea.

Kim, a single mother herself, repeatedly had employers ask about her marital status at job interviews. When she revealed she was a single mother, her ability to be ‘loyal’ to the company was brought into question, with many Korean employers often demanding full dedication to a job.

She was working overseas when she found out she was pregnant at 33. Friends and family told her to get an abortion. When she didn’t, her family urged her to put her child up for adoption.

When Kim returned to Korea to give birth, her boyfriend disappeared and she was unprepared for the reality of being a single mother.

Within two months of giving birth, she began looking for a job. Her family refused to acknowledge her baby as a family member and she needed money.

She was living in Busan, in the south east of South Korea, when a job opportunity came up in Seoul. She had no one to look after her baby while she took the long trip to the city.

At the insistence of her mother, Kim contacted an adoption agency to discuss her options. The next day a social worker from an agency visited, Kim filled out the paperwork to relinquish her child and got straight on a train to Seoul. Her plan was to get the job and then get her child back.

The social worker agreed to contact her if a family wanted to adopt her daughter, but 11 days later she received a text message saying her baby had been adopted.

When Kim desperately contacted the adoption agency to oppose the adoption, the agency tried to convince her it was better for her child to be adopted by a wealthy family.

Kim repeatedly called the agency about getting her child back and after three months, the adoptive family handed back custody of her child.

Kim’s experience is not an isolated case.


Soon-hee Shin was 28 when she found out she was pregnant. She broke up with her boyfriend and at 16 weeks, she went to get an abortion. After hearing her baby’s heartbeat during an ultrasound, she changed her mind.

Shin’s parents were no longer alive, so she had no family support. She worked until she was eight months pregnant and then entered an unwed mothers facility. She was unsure if she was going to keep her child, but just needed a place to stay.

At the facility, which was run by an adoption agency, she saw how happy the mothers were who were raising their children, but thought it would be impossible for her to do.

“I mentioned to a social worker that I was thinking about adoption and the very next day they moved my file over to the adoption side of the centre. The next day I had counseling about the process of adoption,” she says.

She signed the relinquishment papers for her child before it was born and within two days of her birth, her daughter was taken to another location. She was allowed to hold her baby for one hour before she was taken away – further contact was denied by the facility’s nurses.

Shin chose international adoption, a process that can take around eight months, so she was allowed to visit her daughter for 30 minutes a month until she left the country.

“At first I had no inclination to get my daughter back, but after seeing her every month, that’s when I started to want to get her back,” she says.

She sought advice from KUMFA, the Korean Unwed Mothers Families’ Association, on how to get her back and asked for advice on a Korean online forum.

At the seven-month point of the process, the adoption agency told her to come and see her daughter one last time before she was sent to a family in the US.

However, when Shin visited the agency, her daughter was not there and the agency questioned why she posted on the forum. She says the agency then tried to convince her that adoption to a wealthy family was better for her child than raising her alone.

Shin was told to come back a week later if she still wanted her child. She returned, but was forced to write a letter of apology to the adoptive parents before she could get her daughter back.

Hiding the truth

Some unwed mothers feel they need to hide their single mother status due to negative attitudes about them.

Lee had her daughter when she was 23. After she got pregnant, she went into hiding and cut off contact with friends.

“The term single mother has a negative connotation. It’s something where you can’t really just tell your friend ‘I’m a single mother’ confidently,” she says.

She points out a story about a friend, a 40-year-old single mother who owned a hair salon. Her friend appeared on television for a segment on single mothers. Although her face was blurred, the interview took place in her salon and customers recognised it. After the show aired, the hair salon went bankrupt because regular customers stopped going.

“Her daughter was in elementary school and people started saying ‘that girl is from a single mother’,” Lee says.

Lee’s two year-old daughter is already being subjected to discrimination at school. At her kindergarten, children hung photos of their family. Some parents commented that her daughter only has one parent.

“Also, when the kids get into trouble, if one of them is raised by a single mother, people will gossip that it’s because they only have a mother,” Lee says.

Lee says it’s up to the government to change the negative perception of unwed mothers. When she left the Christian-run single mothers centre where she give birth, she had no idea what to do and what financial support was available. She says facilities also encourage adoption by talking about raising children in a negative way.

Instead, Lee says women should be provided with more information about how they can raise their children and what financial benefits they are entitled to.

“If mothers know or have this kind of information, I think they would choose to raise their own child [instead of choosing abortion or adoption],” she says.

Kim also believes support is vital. In particular, she says unwed mothers need help with job training and it is too hard for them to access public housing. She says pop culture can also play a role in influencing a better attitude, such as positive single mother characters in Korean dramas.

“Every woman has a right to raise their children without a father. I don’t want to see any other sad cases like mine who send their babies for adoption because of pressure from family and pressure from friends,” she says.

March 3, 2014

Please read the article above and be prepared to discuss the details of the case in general and also the issues of death penalty, punishment in general and societies views on mental retardation.

February 25, 2014

Thursday 2/13/14

Tuesday February 11, 2014

Wednesday 2/5/14