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  • Nick Morgan Ph.D.

Can We Really Read Other People's Emotions?

and are we any better at it than computers?

Can We Really Read Other People's Emotions?

Humans read each other’s emotions with great enthusiasm, but not a lot of accuracy. Who hasn't been annoyed by the question: “What’s the matter?” If you answer, “Nothing, that’s just my face,” people strangely assume that they’re correct and you are grumpy.

But we do this because we care, enormously, about other people’s intent. What do they mean, and what do they mean toward us? Are they friends or foes? Powerful or subservient? A potential mate, or not? And so on.

The question that inevitably follows on this highly practical concern about other people’s feelings, is more philosophical. It comes perhaps first in that moment when someone’s response to an event surprise you because it’s different from your own.

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You wonder: “Is that other person experiencing the same event as me?” This leads to the more general question, “Do humans experience similar emotions, or are we all different?”

Philosophy has come up with different answers over the years, but generally, the conclusion is that, on the whole, we’re incommensurate with one another. That’s a mouthful, but it means that your experience of last night’s football game was different than mine. Maybe I cared more about the home team than you did, or maybe I don’t care about football at all.

Taking it a step further, think about individual words. If I say, “London” to you, you most likely get a mental picture of the great English city, but what is it based on? Have you been to London? I have, both as a tourist and on business; I’ve got a walking familiarity with the city. But someone who lives there will inevitably have a much more detailed, rich, and emotional response to the word London than either you or me. Here’s their favorite pub, here’s their usual Tube stop, here’s where they got fired from one job, here’s where they currently work—and on, and on.

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Can we say that the word London means the same thing to all of us?

And yet, neuroscience is teaching us that we’re more alike than we are different. Recent work on brain scans, for example, can read human emotions with 90 percent accuracy. Researchers showed people pictures of unpleasant things—physical injuries, hate groups, and acts of aggression—and they found that people reacted in predictable ways. But more than that, they all reacted with pretty much the same brain patterns.

We’re more alike than we are different.

Similarly, work by a team of psychologists at Princeton University found that when a storyteller and a listener get together, their brain patterns match up identically. Stories take over our brains—and in the same ways.

Human emotions are similar, and the brain patterns show it. As chief researcher Luke Chang put it, emotions have a neural signature which is essentially the same from human to human. This also suggests that artificial intelligence could learn to recognize these emotions with high accuracy, 90 percent so far. The "2001: A Space Odyssey" scenario is not as far off as we might like to think.

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And there’s one further implication, which is that the accuracy rate for computers is much higher than humans can manage. And here’s the kicker, higher even than humans can manage their own emotions. We’re not even very good at recognizing how we feel ourselves.

Reading other peoples’ emotions, as well as our own, is essential for good communications, and public speaking. The research shows that we are more alike than different suggesting that humans can profitably learn to become more accurate at reading emotions and that the results might pay off in better communication for anyone who attempts it.

Nick Morgan, Ph.D


See the journal PLOS Biology. Chang et al., 2015.


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