Facial emotional expressions are not universal

From the Bushmen of the Kalahari to the Kalaallit of Greenland, you’ll find that people everywhere frown in frustration and smile in delight. Or will you? The universality of human emotions and their expression in the face has become widely accepted in psychology. At the vanguard of this perspective is pioneering psychologist Paul Ekman, the co-creator of the facial action coding system (FACS) – a way of categorising and interpreting facial expressions according to which muscles are tensed. But a new study casts doubt on the idea that facial expressions are culturally universal, showing instead that people from East Asia have trouble distinguishing fear and disgust from surprise and anger, respectively, as conveyed through faces conforming to the FACS system of expression.

Rachael Jack and colleagues asked 13 Western Caucasian participants and 13 East Asian participants to look at photographs of dozens of White and Chinese faces, and to categorise them into the six core emotional expressions of happy, surprise, fear, disgust, anger and sadness, as determined by the FACS system.

The first key finding was that East Asian participants made significantly more errors when categorising disgust and fear compared with the Western participants. Records of the participants’ eye movements also showed differences between the groups. The East Asians tended to focus more exclusively on the eye regions of the faces, whereas the Westerners focused on the nose and mouth region just as much as the eyes. A computer model similarly confused fear and surprise for anger and disgust, respectively, when it was programmed to disproportionately sample from the eye and eye brow region.

In other words, in faces categorised according to Ekman’s FACS system, observers need to look at the nose and mouth regions to accurately distinguish between fear, surprise, anger and disgust, but the East Asian participants focused on the eyes, thus leading them to make errors. When in doubt, the East Asian participants tended to bias their answers towards the less threatening emotions such as surprise.

The findings suggest that certain emotions are expressed slightly differently in East Asia, such that people from that culture have learned to focus on different facial regions.

“From here on, examining how the different facets of cultural ideologies and concepts have diversified these basic skills [of communication by facial expression] will elevate knowledge of human emotion processing from a reductionist to a more authentic representation,” the researchers said. “Otherwise when it comes to communicating emotions across cultures, Easterners and Westerners will continue to find themselves lost in translation.”

If you’re interested in this field, you should check out the new hit US TV series “Lie To Me” (available on iTunes in the UK). The lead character, Cal Lightman, is based on Paul Ekman, and Ekman has acted as a consultant to the series.

ResearchBlogging.orgJack, R., Blais, C., Scheepers, C., Schyns, P., & Caldara, R. (2009). Cultural Confusions Show that Facial Expressions Are Not Universal Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.07.051

If you like this post, you might also like:
Botox patients help emotion researchers.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

14 thoughts on “Facial emotional expressions are not universal”

  1. So in other words basic facial expressions are indeed universal, but there are a few cultural quirks. Ekman's finding that even Bushmen smile when good stuff happens still stands…

  2. Neuroskeptic – As understand it, the strongest version of the universality approach would predict that you could take a person from any culture and they would recognise the core facial emotional expressions of a person from any other culture. If the findings from this study are to be believed, then this just isn't the case. East Asians misinterpreted two of the core emotional facial expressions (as expressed according to the FACS system). So you could argue this is more than just a cultural quirk, it's potentially fatal for the strong version of the universality account.

  3. The study speaks to the question of interpreting the facial expression of others. Did it (or have others) reported on associated distinctions in making facial expressions to express “the same” emotions?

  4. Isn't one of the reasons Ekman finds wide support is that his work has sampled many (hundreds?) of indivuduals from numerous subraces? Thirteen Caucasians and thirteen East Asians is a good start but the deductions therefrom could certainly use more support.

  5. Digest – OK, maybe an extremely strong version of the universality theory is inconsistent with this data, but the underlying universality of basic emotions still stands.

    As I just wrote on my blog…

    “Statistically, the Asians successfully recognized fear and disgust less often than the Westerners. But they still got them right 58% and 71% of the time, respectively, even when the faces were Western; they did better when the faces were Asian. Given that there were 7 options, had they been picking randomly they would only have got 14% right. 58% is still pretty good. The Asians were actually (non-significantly) better at recognizing neutral, surprised, and sad faces.

    And the differences notwithstanding, the whole task relies upon the fact that the subjects know the meaning of “happy”, “fear”, and so forth, and associate them with certain face expressions. These fact that the experiment worked at all shows – as Ekman would predict – that both Westerners and East Asians share an emotional understanding.”

  6. Hi Neuroskeptic
    Thanks, that's useful and interesting to hear about that extra detail. My own view (along the lines of Steve Pinker's ideas in Blank Slate) is that there is an innate and universal foundation to emotional expression and recognition, but that culture can make some minor, relatively superficial, tweaks, which is what's going on in this study.

  7. I agree – and I think the cultural aspects are really interesting. Ekman himself did some great studies on emotional expression in Japanese people, showing (iirc) that Japanese people tend to “mask” negative emotions with smiles more than Westerners do.

  8. When Ekman conducts cross-cultural studies the number of participants are of acceptable validity, this study has 13 and the researchers decide that Ekman's findings are contradictory? Before accepting the FACS system Ekman admits that some negative emotions such as anger and disgust are not easily distinguishable due to the protrusion of the lips and mouth, but still this study is unreliable and facial expressions are strongly suggested to be universal.

Comments are closed.