We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Facial Expressions of Emotion Still Culturally Universal

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Apr 20, 2012 2:43 AMNov 5, 2019 12:14 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Do people from different cultures express emotions differently?

A new paper says yes: Facial expressions of emotion are not culturally universal. But as far as I can see the data show that at least some of them very much are universal.

First some background. The authors, Rachael Jack and colleagues of Glasgow, have published before on this theme. Back in 2009 I blogged about one of their previous papers, which showed that East Asians were less accurate than Westerners at categorizing certain emotions.

But although there were cultural differences in ability to classify some emotions, East Asians still did much better than just guessing. To me, this said that there are fundamental universal emotional expressions, albeit culture can subtly modify them.

That's my verdict on this study as well.

The authors adopted a new (and very clever) method this time. Rather than just showing people photos of actors posing expressions, and asking subjects to label them with an emotion, they generated virtual faces using a 3D modelling software, and made the faces display "expressions", with their 41 virtual facial muscle groups.

Subjects (either white Westerners, or recent East Asian immigrants) saw 4,800 random assortments and had to label each one; the authors could therefore work back to calculate their "mental model" of that emotion based on the set of facial movements that best fit, individually (it reminds me of this method).

What happened? The Westerners mental models clustered into the classic 6 "basic emotions" of happy, sad, disgust, fear, anger, and surprise. The Asians however didn't; although they were pretty much the same on happy and sad, they were less clear about the other 4.

But how much less? Take a look:

Cluster analysis and dissimilarity matrices of the Caucasian and Asian models of facial expressions. In each panel, vertical color coded bars show the k means (k = 6) cluster membership of each model. Each 41-dimensional model (n = 180 per culture) corresponds to the emotion category labelled above (30 models per emotion). The underlying grayscale dissimilarity matrices represent the Euclidean distances between each pair of models, used as inputs to k-means clustering. Note that, in the Caucasian group, the lighter squares along the diagonal indicate higher model similarity within each of the six emotion categories compared with the East Asian models. Correspondingly, k-means cluster analysis shows that the Western Caucasian models form six emotionally homogenous clusters... In contrast, the Asian models show considerable model dissimilarity within each emotion category and overlap between categories.

This shows that yes, Asians "confused" some emotions more than Westerners but the basic emotional distinctions seemed to be intact, with Happy and Sad especially solid.

And look at these examples of the "mental model" for one subject of each group: yes they're different, but not very.

These are fine results, and I think there are real questions over whether the Ekman 6 emotions model really captures the essence of human emotions (especially negative ones.)

But, especially in the context of previous work from the same authors, I don't think these data really justify the paper's title ("Facial expressions of emotion are not culturally universal"), or the statement that

Our data directly show that across cultures, emotions are expressed using culture-specific facial signals. Although some basic facial expressions such as fear and disgust originally served as an adaptive function... facial expression signals have since evolved and diversified to serve the primary role of emotion communication during social interaction. As a result, these once biologically hardwired and universal signals have been molded by the diverse social ideologies and practices of the cultural groups who use them for social communication.

Overall, (ahem) I'm happy to admit that these data show some surprising cultural differences, but I'm afraid that the authors' overblown rhetoric makes me disgusted, sad and angry.

Jack, R., Garrod, O., Yu, H., Caldara, R., & Schyns, P. (2012). Facial expressions of emotion are not culturally universal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1200155109

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.