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Do facial expressions convey the same emotions around the world?

April 17, 2012|By Rosie Mestel, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Are facial expressions for basic emotions the same the world over? A new study purports to challenge that.
Are facial expressions for basic emotions the same the world over? A new… (Los Angeles Times )

If you were to travel anywhere in the globe -- even to visit remote tribes who have scant contact with the larger world -- would people be able to read your emotions from your facial expressions (happiness, sadness, disgust, etc.) and would you be able to read theirs?

In other words, do people smile when they’re happy, wrinkle their noses when disgusted, the world over?

Scientists have long thought so, but authors of a new study challenge the idea.

Charles Darwin argued in “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” that basic facial expressions are universal -- implying that are hard-wired within us, the product of natural selection. In other words, you would know if someone looked happy, or sad, etc., wherever you were in the world.

It makes rational sense that such expressions might be hard-wired. We are an intensely social species, after all, and the business of letting others know what we’re feeling (or deceiving them about what we’re feeling) is important business. So is reading the emotions of others. Why would natural selection have left that aspect of human behavior alone?

That such basic expressions are shared throughout our species -- with cultural overlays to be sure -- also fits in with what we see when we raise our own kids. Babies the world over look pretty darn unhappy when they’re ... well, unhappy. Babies smile at really early ages. You could argue that they’ve learned these things through picking up on cues starting at a super-young age. Or you could argue that they’re just wired that way.

Since Darwin’s day, researchers have, indeed, traveled to far-flung corners of the world to test the “universality theory.” Paul Ekman, emeritus professor of psychology at UC San Francisco and inspiration for the TV show "Lie To Me," reported that even the isolated Fore tribesmen of New Guinea could look at photos of people from other cultures and identify what emotion were displaying. In addition, when they were offered scenarios and asked to pick the picture of a facial expression for six basic emotions -- anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise -- that would best fit the scenario, the tribesmen's choices matched what ours would be.

Since Ekman’s work, other papers have tested the universality theory and occasionally challenged it. The latest was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What the researchers did: Rachael Jack of the University of Glasgow and coauthors used computer graphics to generate a wide array of facial animations -- 4,800 in all, based on the different muscles that move in the face to create expressions. They then showed these animations to 15 Western Caucasian and 15 East Asian observers. The images were evenly split between Asian and Caucasian faces. The observers were asked to categorize each of the facial expressions by the emotion it was expressing and to indicate how intensely they felt the animation was expressing the emotion they’d chosen.

“The universality hypothesis predicts that, in each culture, these mental models will form six, distinct clusters -- one per basic emotion, because each emotion is expressed using a specific combination of facial movements common to all humans,” the authors wrote. Similarly, if facial expressions of emotions are universal, they said, the intensity scores should match too.

What they found: They did get six clusters for the White Caucasian subjects. But there was a lot of overlap between emotion categories for the East Asian subjects. This, they assert, demonstrates “a different, culture-specific, and therefore not universal, representation of the basic emotions.”

The authors argue that though some facial expressions may once have been adaptive earlier in the evolutionary history of our dynasty, today cultural factors have a far greater influence.

Here's a link to the paper.

And here's a fastcompany.com article about Ekman, facial expressions and how to tell if someone's lying.

An article at the website of the American Psychological Assn. discusses the universality debate; it's from 2000, but the issues remain much the same.

Finally, here at youramazingbrain.org is a website filled with quizzes about facial expressions, body language and more.

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