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.
Jack, 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
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