The fear gasping face as a threat display in a Melanesian society
Theory and research showthat humans attribute both emotions and intentions to others on the basis of facial behavior: A gasping face can be seen as showing “fear” and intent to submit. The assumption that such interpretations are pancultural derives largely from Western societies. Here, we report two studies conducted in an indigenous, small-scale Melanesian society with considerable cultural and visual isolation from the West: the Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Our multidisciplinary research team spoke the vernacular and had extensive prior fieldwork experience. In study 1, Trobriand adolescents were asked to attribute emotions, social motives, or both to a set of facial displays. Trobrianders showed a mixed and variable attribution pattern, although with much lower agreement than studies of Western samples. Remarkably, the gasping face (traditionally considered a display of fear and submission in the West) was consistently matched to two unpredicted categories: anger and threat. In study 2, adolescents were asked to select the face that was threatening; Trobrianders chose the “fear” gasping face whereas Spaniards chose an “angry” scowling face. Our findings, consistent with functional approaches to animal communication and observations made on threat displays in small-scale societies, challenge the Western assumption that “fear” gasping faces uniformly express fear or signal submission across cultures.
Citation:Crivelli, C., Russell, J.A., Jarillo, S. and Fernández-Dols, J.M (2016) The fear gasping face as a threat display in a Melanesian society. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113 (44), pp. 12403-12407