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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 08-Jan-10


Friday 08-January-10

East vs. West emotional expressions

If I smile you know I'm happy, but what if a Kalahari bushman drew back his lips and exposed his teeth at you? Do you do the same back? Do you look away or do you run for your life? The question of how universal emotional signals really is of deep interest to not only anthropologists but also neurologists who want to know what is hard-wired into our brains.

There is a body of evidence that shows yes, a number of emotions are common around the world, including smiling. But what about recognition of facial expressions?

Psychologist Rachael Jack and colleagues showed both Western and Asian people pictures of six core emotional expressions of happy, surprise, fear, disgust, anger and sadness. What they found was that that there is some difference in Eastern and Western interpretation of expressions, which calls into question prior research that supports universal expressions.

For example, East Asian subjects were less accurate at identifying disgust, easily mistaking it for surprise (and also mistaking fear for anger). A reason for this is that the Asians focused more on the eyes, whilst Western subjects spent more time looking at other parts of the face, including the mouth, where signals of disgust are most visible. It also implies that in East Asia, the eyes give sufficient evidence to allow accurate determination of disgust. Perhaps this comes from Eastern cultural norms that dictate a more muted expression of negative emotions than the more emotionally expressive Western culture.

For changing minds this indicates a careful warning: when interacting with people from other cultures, beware of subtle non-verbal misunderstandings.

Jack, R., Blais, C., Scheepers, C., Schyns, P., & Caldara, R. (2009). Cultural Confusions Show that Facial Expressions Are Not Universal. Current Biology

Your comments

The title of the paper implies that the six core emotional expressions are not universal but it would appear that it is the interpretation that is problematic not the presentation. According to your text the differences in interpretation are due to different cultures focussing on different areas of the face.
The physical expressions are universal but the interpretations are culturally variable.

-- Richard Reid

Dave replies:
Good point, Richard. It does appear to be cultural variation overlaid on universal emotions.

I like the analysis, it is an eye-opener and guides a multi-cultural clinician in judging emotions holistically. Whole face not only parts.

-- Dr. Seddie Wilfred Alibusa

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