Friday, August 14, 2009

Human facial expressions aren't universal

by Ewen Callaway

15:04 13 August 2009

Facial expressions, Charles Darwin argued in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, are a universal window into emotion. But new research challenges that notion, showing that east Asian people struggle to recognise facial expressions that western Caucasians attribute to fear and disgust. By focusing on eyes and brows, Asians miss subtle cues conveyed via the mouth.

"We question the universality of these specific signals," says Rachael Jack, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Glasgow, UK, whose team analysed how 13 Caucasian and 13 east Asian men and women interpret a standardised set of facial expressions, thought to be racially neutral, which is used widely in research.

Caucasian volunteers had no problem distinguishing between expressions of surprise, fear, disgust and anger. Asians, however, frequently confused fear for surprise and disgust for anger, Jack's team found.

An eye-tracking tool and software indicated that while Caucasians tended to look at all parts of a face equally, Asians alternated their gaze between the left and right eyes.

Meanwhile, computer modelling of different facial expressions found that the mouth is a much better telltale of a particular emotion than eyes and brows. Relying solely on the eyes, the model found, creates ambiguity between fear and surprise, and also anger and disgust – reflecting the mistakes the east Asian volunteers made in the experiment.

Go east

Jack's results don't mean that people from east Asian countries are blind to facial expressions of fear and disgust, but that there may be a different way for these signals to be conveyed. "We need to find out what these signals look like in eastern cultures," she says.

East Asian cultures tend to frown on the display of negative emotions in public, Jack says. It's possible that east Asians have learned that by paying close attention to another person's eyes, they can spot facial giveaways of muzzled feelings of disgust or fear, she says.

Differences in the interpretation of facial expressions between Asians and Caucasians are almost certainly cultural, not genetic, Jack says. To see if people can switch strategies to suit different cultures, her team is studying children born in the UK to Chinese parents.

Journal reference: Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.07.051 (in press)


Callaway, Ewen, Caroline Blais, Christoph Scheepers, Philippe G. Schyns and Roberto Caldara. Cultural Confusions Show that Facial Expressions Are Not Universal. In Current Biology. August 13, 2009. Available online:

1 comment:

The Real CAM said...

I don’t think that the research challenges the notion that all people show the same expression for each emotion, but that the different cultures interpret the expressions differently. However, this only looks at 2 ethnicities, both that include many different cultures (Asian and Caucasian are very broad terms and the original paper only has “13 Europeans (7 fem/6 mal) and 13 East Asian (12 Chinese/1 Japanese with 8 fem/5 mal”) so that I’m not sure if this is even a significant amount to test upon).
The only difference found was that the East Asian observers could not distinguish between surprise and fear or disgust and anger for BOTH “same race” and “other race” faces. Therefore, I’m not sure I buy Ms. Jack’s conclusion that they should “question the universality of these specific signals” because they misinterpreted the emotion in the “same race” faces as they did “other race” faces. Therefore, it probably would be more apt to say that the interpretation of human facial expressions aren't universal, not that the expressions themselves are not universal.