An important question continued to nag Barrett. What was the best way to determine the emotions that people are feeling? The therapist in her wanted to use the information to help her patients; her inner researcher just wanted the answer. So she dove into the emotion literature, and what she found surprised her. After reviewing all of the studies she could find, she realized that, statistically speaking, the best that scientists of emotion could do was to determine whether someone was feeling good or bad.
For Barrett, that wasn’t good enough. So she kept looking. She signed up for a physiology and cardiovascular training fellowship, to learn how to measure physiological indicators herself. And then something shocking happened. She returned to those famous cross-cultural studies that had launched Ekman’s career—and found that they were less than watertight. The problem was the options that Ekman had given his subjects when asking them to identify the emotions shown on the faces they were presented with. Those options, Barrett discovered, had limited the ways in which people allowed themselves to think.
Barrett explained the problem to me this way: “I can break that experiment really easily, just by removing the words. I can just show you a face and ask how this person feels. Or I can show you two faces, two scowling faces, and I can say, ‘Do these people feel the same thing?’ And agreement drops into the toilet.”
This exposed a fatal flaw in Ekman’s work as far as Barrett was concerned. “I mean, think about it,” she said. “When was the last time that you saw somebody win an Academy Award for going like this with fear”—at which point she mimicked for me the face in Edvard Munch’s The Scream.