Emotions and nonverbal communication are essential for human interaction. The ability to coordinate behaviors with others is essential for human survival and differences between languages and cultures can make the task of communication even more challenging.

One University of Wisconsin lab works to better the nuances of communication at the center of our everyday lives. The Niedenthal Lab, led by psychology professor Paula Niedenthal, researches whether people from heterogeneous cultures, or cultures with diverse makeups, first communicated by being more emotionally transparent.

Fifth-year Ph.D. student Olivia Zhao said Niedenthal’s lab studies several facets of emotions, including a topic on many minds during the pandemic — how masks impact emotion and communication through facial expressions. Zhao said their research found people wearing masks are still good at recognizing expressions that involve the upper face.

But one of the lab’s main focuses is on the question of how culture plays a part in communication. Zhao said people from different cultural backgrounds communicate differently because of diverse cultural norms.

“What if you don’t share the same language or the same, even the same norms that you grew up with here?” Zhao said. “You realize better ways to achieve communication or cooperation. And then other than language, nonverbal expressions are a very big channel to do that.”

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For example, graduate student Ethan Harrod studied how eye contact between monkeys affects social structures, Zhao said. In the future, Harrod’s research will examine how eye contact works differently in humans. Zhao said other work in the lab examines how people synchronize their body movements and how that relates to their emotions.

Zhao’s own research works to connect the fields of psychology and robotics, specifically focused on emotions, the design of robots and human-robot interaction. Zhao observes human-to-human interactions and applies them to human-robot interactions to make robots more trustworthy and friendly.

She hopes this research will improve products like Amazon’s Alexa and other artificial intelligence-based robots. Currently, Zhao said these products can often make users frustrated, but with more emotional research, they could become more helpful for users and more understanding of their emotions.

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Zhao is studying psychology and computer science, but finds the most challenging part of her research is trying to bridge the gap between the two departments.

“It’s like really difficult to kind of find a way or a model or a topic [that] … works on the human part, and it also works on the robot part,” Zhao explained.

Zhao first got interested in psychology because she watched crime shows and was interested in facial expressions. After taking psychology courses, she realized these expressions were much more complicated.

After taking some psychology courses and joining several labs, Zhao said emotions touched her heart. When Zhao first moved to the U.S. for college, she said the way she learned English was different than how it was actually used around her. As a result, Zhao used nonverbal behaviors to facilitate communication — motivating her to study how emotions can serve as social signals and how they react between different social environments.

Zhao got interested in the Niedenthal Lab because it seemed open to new ideas and allowed for creative ways to study emotions. She was also drawn the diversity of research interests within the lab and the joy that often results from their research.

“Our studies make [participants] laugh, make them smile,” Zhao said. “It just naturally makes us happy all day, and it’s really enjoyable to feel that we can make people happy and laugh. So it’s just a very positive environment most of the time.”

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When she graduates, Zhao hopes to continue to do research on emotions in human-computer interactions and human-robot interactions for a company like Google, Facebook or Microsoft. Zhao said she enjoys finding ways to make devices more friendly and improving products, and she hopes to continue the research she’s worked on in the Niedenthal Lab.

The Niedenthal Lab also studies how racial discrimination affects heart rate variability, vagal tone and heart health, UW senior Michaela Haak said.

Haak is majoring in psychology and biology with a certificate in health and the humanities. The research she’s a part of is working to find how people react physiologically to being put in stressful social situations.

Haak currently works on a study that uses hormones from saliva samples, however, she serves as a research assistant on the study, so she can’t know the goals of the research without influencing the results. 

Haak said she thought joining the Niedenthal Lab was like fate — she works under Harrod, investigating the connection between physiological and psychological data, combining her interests in biology and psychology.

In the future, Haak doesn’t plan to continue to do research. Once she gets her undergrad, Haak wants to pursue a master’s degree in counseling to be a therapist.

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One of the most valuable things Haak has learned in the Niedenthal Lab is what goes into a study. Haak said working in the lab taught her that there’s a lot more to research papers than she previously thought. But the best part of the lab, Haak has found, is the people.

“I love my lab mates,” Haak said. “All of the grad students, the postdocs, my fellow RAs, Paula [Niedenthal], everyone is so invested in creating quality work in the field of psychology. And everyone is so passionate about learning more about the human mind.”

One of Zhao’s favorite parts of working in the lab is creating experiments. One time, Zhao said she created a game with a hologram balloon for a study. Another time, the lab tried to frustrate participants by having them build structures from spaghetti noodles and marshmallows.

But the most valuable thing Zhao learned in the lab was collaboration. If she doesn’t know something, Zhao said she can just ask her lab mates.

“Once you have an idea, it’s about how to make it happen,” Zhao said. “And it never happens with myself alone, it always happens with talking to people … Sometimes other people have better ideas and we end up collaborating with each other.”