Aug 18 2009

Recognition of Facial Expressions Not Universal

A recent study suggests that the recognition of certain facial expressions of emotions may not be universal, as was previously thought. This finding, if confirmed, raises some interesting questions.

Sociological studies have shown that in humans facial expressions and their recognition are universal – an American can easily interpret the expressions of an Australian aborigine. But more careful recent study suggests that there are differences.

Specifically, Rachael Jack studied 13 caucasian and 13 east Asian men and women for their ability to identify fear, surprise, anger, and disgust in a standardized set of facial expressions. They found that the caucasians had no difficulty, while the east Asians confused surprise with fear and anger with disgust.

The reason for the disparity is also interesting – Jack found that the Asian subjects focused their gaze on the eyes, while the caucasians shifted their gaze between the eyes, the mouth, and other parts of the face. Therefore, caucasians seem to be taking in more emotional information from the whole face, while the asian subjects were relying mostly on the eyes alone.

To follow up on this idea computer modeling was used to see what part of facial expression are most reliable, and they found that the mouth is often better than the eyes for distinguishing surprise from fear and anger from disgust.

So the evidence all seems to fit – Asians rely on the eyes to read emotions and the eyes alone can be misleading.

That Asians rely more on the eyes for reading emotions, it has been noted, is also reflected in their emoticons – those cute little facial expressions made out of keyboard characters that are so useful for online communication.

Here are the western emoticons for happy, sad, and surprise respectively:

: )     : (      : o

these are meant to be mentally rotated 90 degrees clockwise.

Here are the Asian emoticons for happy, sad, and surprise:

(^_^)    (T_T)   (*_*)

The obvious difference is that the western emoticons vary the mouth while the Asian emoticons vary the eyes.

Now the big question is – what are the roots of these difference? Are they genetic or cultural. Jack seems pretty certain that they are cultural, but plans to test this hypothesis by studying Asians raised in the West.

I am uncertain if this difference is cultural or genetic. Asians and Europeans have been genetically separated (although not completely isolated) for thousands of years, which seems long enough for this kind of difference to evolve. So a genetic difference is plausible, but so is a cultural difference. We can only await the evidence to see which hypothesis is more likely to be true.

The related question is why would this particular difference arise. It could be random genetic or cultural drift, and not specifically adaptive. But the recognition of human emotions seems to be a highly adaptive trait and therefore it is reasonable to think about an adaptive cause.

Jack has a hypothesis:

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.

That’s interesting. Would, then, westerners have more difficulty detecting hidden emotions in and Asian culture? Is it more difficult to hide these emotions from an Asian subject? These sound like testable questions.

I look forward to seeing how this fascinating research progresses.

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