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Emotions are Still Universal

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Aug 21, 2009 8:35 AMNov 5, 2019 12:18 AM


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Are facial expressions of emotion culturally specific, or universal? For decades, the dominant view has been that they are universal, at least when it comes to a set of "basic" emotions: fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, anger, and disgust.

Darwin was an early proponent of the idea that all humans (and indeed other mammals) display emotions in certain ways; his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals is still a very interesting read.

More recently, the universalist view has been closely associated with the psychologist Paul Ekman. In the 1960s Ekman reported that people from diverse cultures, including isolated tribespeople from Papua New Guinea, make similar faces in response to similar situations.

Now, a new paper claims that Cultural Confusions Show that Facial Expressions Are Not Universal. This article has got a lot of mediaandblogattention, not surprisingly, since at least judging by the title, this is a major upset.

But the paper's findings are rather modest. The authors, Jack et al, took 13 white British and 13 East Asian subjects. The Asians, who were mostly from China, had only been in Britain for about a week, and all subjects reported that they had never lived in, or even visited an "other race" country, dated interracialy, etc.

Subjects were shown pictures of faces and had to pick the appropriate "basic emotion" - anger, disgust, fear, happy, neutral, surprise, and sadness. The faces were of actors posing the emotions, in accordance with Ekman's "FACS" system.

The result was that Western subjects did well on all emotions, but the Asians did less well on fear and digust, as they tended to confuse these two emotions. The authors also used eye-tracking technology to see where the subjects were looking, and found that the East Asians tended to focus on the eyes more while examining the faces, which may explain their differing performance.

This is quite interesting, especially the eye-tracking data (which goes into a lot of detail). But does it justify the conclusion that:

Our data demonstrate genuine perceptual differences between Western and East Asian observers and show that FACS-coded facial expressions are not universal signals of human emotion. From here on, examining how the different facets of cultural ideologies and concepts have diversified these basic social skills will elevate knowledge of human emotion processing from a reductionist to a more authentic representation. Otherwise, when it comes to communicating emotions across cultures, Easterners and Westerners will continue to find themselves lost in translation.

Well, sort of, but the differences found in this study were really rather small. 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. The fact that the experiment worked at all shows - as Ekman would predict - that both Westerners and East Asians share an emotional understanding. There appear to be some cultural quirks, but the essential universality of facial emotion still stands.

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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