Facial emotional expressions are universal and culturally specific

Earlier this year a piece of emotion research provoked a rather heated reaction in some quarters after it claimed to show that, contrary to the writings of Charles Darwin, Paul Ekman and others, facial emotional expressions are not universal after all. “Seriously, is this all that it takes to be published in Current Biology? Sheesh,” was the verdict of one incredulous online commenter to Reddit (a more considered critical reaction is here). Now, with a diplomat’s tact, David Matsumoto and colleagues have presented new findings showing that facial emotional expressions start out universal, but then become culturally differentiated. We’re all correct, everyone wins, big smiles all round, or maybe little ones, depending on where you were brought up.

Matsumoto’s team studied thousands of photographs taken of jūdōka at the Athens Olympics in 2004 just after matches had ended. The researchers were particularly interested in whether, and how quickly, competitors’ altered their initial facial emotional expressions after winning or losing.

The key finding was that cultural differences emerged, with athletes from collectivist cultures, such as China, tending to mask their emotional expressions more than athletes from individualistic cultures like the UK. The research also showed that jūdōka from more wealthy, densely populated countries tended to be less concerned to mask their emotional expressions than competitors from rural, less populated countries.

“These findings demonstrate that, across time, a given individual’s emotional expressions in a single context can be both universal and culture-specific,” the researchers said.

Further analysis showed that cultural influences on emotional expressions tended to kick in within one to two seconds of the initial appearance of a facial emotional display. Matsumoto and his colleagues believe that the initial facial reaction is triggered automatically by subcortical brain structures, before more culturally specific modification is applied by the motor cortex. Dampening down an emotional expression appeared to take less time than completely masking an initial emotional display with another expression, consistent with the idea that masking requires more neurocognitive resources.

“These findings open the door to future research and theory on the temporal dynamics of culturally moderated facial expressions,” the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgMatsumoto D, Willingham B, & Olide A (2009). Sequential dynamics of culturally moderated facial expressions of emotion. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 20 (10), 1269-75 PMID: 19754526

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