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Emotion. 2011 Dec;11(6):1479-83. doi: 10.1037/a0025336. Epub 2011 Oct 17.

Categorical perception of emotional facial expressions does not require lexical categories.

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  • 1Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, the Netherlands.


Does our perception of others' emotional signals depend on the language we speak or is our perception the same regardless of language and culture? It is well established that human emotional facial expressions are perceived categorically by viewers, but whether this is driven by perceptual or linguistic mechanisms is debated. We report an investigation into the perception of emotional facial expressions, comparing German speakers to native speakers of Yucatec Maya, a language with no lexical labels that distinguish disgust from anger. In a free naming task, speakers of German, but not Yucatec Maya, made lexical distinctions between disgust and anger. However, in a delayed match-to-sample task, both groups perceived emotional facial expressions of these and other emotions categorically. The magnitude of this effect was equivalent across the language groups, as well as across emotion continua with and without lexical distinctions. Our results show that the perception of affective signals is not driven by lexical labels, instead lending support to accounts of emotions as a set of biologically evolved mechanisms.

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