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Sweet Emotions: Cataloging a Universal Language

Written by Melissa Dellacato

Daniel Cordaro '07 at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Photo by Harold Shapiro

Do you know how to tell when someone’s flirting with you?

Daniel Cordaro ’07 does.  He conducts research for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and has cataloged 30 universal facial expressions that convey the same emotions for dozens of cultures. “Flirtatiousness” is one of them.

Cordaro has traveled as far as Thailand, Myanmar, and Bhutan to record and analyze the facial expressions of people in remote villages of those countries, and he found that the same 30 expressions were recognizable even in these locales. He and his colleagues are using their library of expressions to build emotional intelligence assessments for adults and children.

Check out a great one-minute video of what Dan has discovered with his research:


"Anticipation": Starting at IC

Although this psychology-based research might seem unusual for someone who graduated from Ithaca College with a chemistry degree—and one who once described the fume hood in a lab as a “comfort zone”—Cordaro insists that his career path has followed a logical progression.

During a campus tour at IC as a prospective student, Cordaro decided to take off on his own to explore what he really wanted to see: the chemistry lab.  After a professor led Cordaro on a personal tour of the labs and equipment, the professor mentioned an on-campus position for performing research in the chemistry department. Before even being officially enrolled at IC, Cordaro jumped at the opportunity.

A self-described introvert in high school, Cordaro gained experience at Ithaca College that helped him come out of his shell. Through campus involvement, like the chemistry club where Cordaro served as president, and great relationships with friends and faculty members, he said he was able to do a complete “personality 180.” To enhance his experience at IC, he also traveled to California and Germany to continue his work in chemistry.

“[All of this combined] really helped me learn some public speaking skills and how to have a presence in front of others,” he said.

"Excitement": Creating a Career Path

After graduation, he was accepted into the graduate program at the University of California at Berkeley, where he completed his master’s degree in chemistry.

Shortly after he began teaching, Cordaro realized he was more interested in the way his students were learning and expressing themselves than in the chemistry he was teaching them.

“I started to realize that I wasn’t really built to be a chemist psychologically,” Cordaro said. “I’m more into figuring out why people do the things they do.”

He started to read psychology books, learning about the complexity of human emotion and behavioral science. “I loved it,” Cordaro said. “I couldn’t get enough of it.”  

"Curiosity": Conducting Research

Soon after, Cordaro went to work as a research assistant with a group in San Francisco and began cataloguing human emotional expression. In order to determine whether human emotional expression is universal or culturally determined, Cordaro and his fellow researchers traveled around the world, collecting and analyzing over 5,000 examples of expression.

The results of the research indicated that there are 30 universally recognizable expressions in the human repertoire including surprise, disgust—and flirtatiousness.

“The idea that human beings all speak the same fundamental, basic, nonverbal language blew my mind,” Cordaro said.

Though on the surface chemistry and psychology are extremely different, Cordaro said that both subjects speak to a deeper understanding of the motivations behind human actions and emotions.

“All science is interchangeable at the very basic level,” he said. “Coming from [chemistry] into psychology, where it’s not as concrete, is actually an exciting opportunity to apply scientific techniques to human nature and human behavior, and how we experience the world.”

In January 2014, Cordaro traveled to Southeast Asia where he collaborated with schools in Thailand and Japan to collect more data on emotional expression.

“The more I travel, the more I get to experience human similarities and differences firsthand, and I can feel myself connecting with people on a basic human level,” Cordaro said. “Travel has given me subjective evidence that there is something common among all people despite cultural and linguistic boundaries.”

This past fall, Cordaro became a postdoctoral associate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

“Learning about human emotions, the way people interact, the way they behave, and the reasons that they behave the way that they do is a fundamental part of being human,” Cordaro said. “I want to bring that [understanding] to people as effectively as I can.”



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