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Communications Science

Facial Expressions Are "Not Global" 137

Posted by kdawson
from the look-me-in-the-mouth dept.
An anonymous reader sends in a BBC report on new research out of Glasgow University, which detected differences in how facial expressions are read between Westerners and East Asians. Using eye tracking, the researchers determined that "people from different cultural groups observe different parts of the face when interpreting expression. East Asians participants tended to focus on the eyes of the other person, while Western subjects took in the whole face, including the eyes and the mouth." Interestingly, the researchers point out that the emoticons used online by the two groups reflect this difference.
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Facial Expressions Are "Not Global"

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  • Anyone in the MMORPG world could've summarized this!
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Maybe, but anecdotal summaries aren't acceptable as evidence in scientific circles.

      Besides, the article is a paper published in Current Biology, not a PhD thesis.

      • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Not to mention it works on a considerably small sample with only 26 participants. Though it didn't mention what the stats were of the experiment itself I can't imagine the study being sound without further survey...

    • And non-MMORPGers could have summarized this at least one year ago
      old news [scienceblogs.com]
  • In other news..... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by nomso (591062) <hallgeir@@@hallgeir...no> on Friday August 14, 2009 @11:13AM (#29066009) Homepage
    people are indeed different.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by gmuslera (3436)
      In this case isn't probably about people, but about culture, don't think there is a genetic difference there. And yes, cultures are still indeed different. You need a lot of years of globalization to uniformize that behavior.
    • by CAIMLAS (41445)

      Yep.

      I'd argue that it's much more diverse than "Eastern" and "Western". You can see the differences of emotional perception and demonstration/manifestation even between the (say) East Coast and Midwest of the US.

  • Interesting (Score:5, Funny)

    by sakdoctor (1087155) on Friday August 14, 2009 @11:13AM (#29066021) Homepage

    ^_^

  • That is not really a surprising discovery. There are differences in the way people show agreement and disagreement in different areas. In fact there are interesting differences in the way people show how they liked the food in different nations and the same actions can mean entirely opposite things in different countries. I guess the implications of this discovery are interesting for robot developers and AI.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by hardburn (141468)

      It's interesting in that some expressions are universal due to a biological basis, but some are cultural. Previously, some anthropologists assumed they were all cultural, but this has been shown otherwise. See the work of Paul Ekman [wikipedia.org].

      • Happiness or Anger? (Score:2, Interesting)

        by rxan (1424721)

        It's interesting in that some expressions are universal due to a biological basis, but some are cultural.

        Quite true.

        Smiling with teeth for humans is a universal expression of happiness. Or at least near universal. But for most other mammals, showing teeth is a sign of aggression and anger.

        • by JWSmythe (446288)

          I don't smile much at work. When I smile, especially a big toothy smile, I've been told that I look like a serial killer who's decided "This is the day to kill all of you.", and very excited about it.

          And no... I've never turned an office into a crime scene. I save my hobbies for the off-hours. :)

          I guess they just see me from the animalistic view, and not the human social view. Funny that, I'm really a nice guy. I promise. I don't suggest attempting to argue

          • by bar-agent (698856)

            Your hide will make a fine poncho! [basicinstructions.net]

            You actually need the opposite advice from that link. :-)/^_^ (your choice)

            • by JWSmythe (446288)

              From what I understand from those who did honestly figure out I'm not a homicidal maniac, before noon, I look like the top right frame. After noon, once the caffeine finally kicks in, I look like the bottom left frame.

              The major differences are, I lost the goatee years ago, and I still have hair, but it's usually cut in a military "high and tight", which I guess doesn't help much either. That just gives people the impression that I have military training to back up the psychot

          • I don't smile much at work. When I smile, especially a big toothy smile, I've been told that I look like a serial killer who's decided "This is the day to kill all of you.", and very excited about it.

            A guy I work with is a bit like that. He scuttles around the office at a bit of a run with a stressed smile on his face suggesting he is in the middle of committing a mass murder.

    • by svtdragon (917476)
      I've three characters for you: =-O
  • by mancunian_nick (986362) <mancunian.nick@googlemail.com> on Friday August 14, 2009 @11:20AM (#29066105) Journal
    In today's Metro, there's an interesting article on this same subject. When we use emoticons such as ;-), people on the other side of the world shrug their shoulders. That's because Westerners read faces differently to Eastern people experts claim. It goes on later - Whereas we tend to use the mouth to express emotions such as :-) for happy and :-( for sad, Eastern emoticons use the eyes ^.^ for happy and ;.; for sad. The findings could mean concepts of 'universal expression' of emotions are wrong - and do not take into account cultural boundaries, the experts said. Interesting but again who are these so-called experts. According to the article, only 13 Europeans and 13 people from China, Japan and Korea were asked to put a series of faces into categories such as sad and surprised. Hardly a global representation I'd have thought but then again statistics, statistics and statistics, as the saying goes. I'm sure even Mr Spock would have thought this was 'fascinating'. :)
    • by the_raptor (652941) on Friday August 14, 2009 @11:59AM (#29066711)

      As a psychology student I can already tell you that the idea of "universal expression" only lives on in pop culture, the idea was invalidated in science a fair while ago. While it is debatable whether emotions are natural or culturally generated it is complete uncontroversial to say that expression of emotion is culturally bound.

      Just look at something like Amok [wikipedia.org] in Malaysia.

      Additionally there have been many studies that show a difference between how Westerners view faces and how non-Westerners do. This study is only interesting in that it puts forward an answer as to why the difference might exist. This is a major issue in psychology because so much research has used white male college students as subjects.

      • by MindlessAutomata (1282944) on Friday August 14, 2009 @12:21PM (#29066993)

        As a psychology student I can already tell you that the idea of "universal expression" only lives on in pop culture, the idea was invalidated in science a fair while ago. While it is debatable whether emotions are natural or culturally generated it is complete uncontroversial to say that expression of emotion is culturally bound.

        I have not personally heard this, and everything I've heard contradicts that. What is this [cornell.edu]?

        Finally, the study in the article establishes that faces are READ differently, not that people are making different facial expressions. This is a big difference from the headline being given, but that's science reporting for you.

        Facial expressions are, for the most part, universal; from what I see Ekman's studies have for the most part still held up. What are you basing your claim that the idea of universal facial expressions has been "invalidated by science a fair while ago?"

      • this is running amok:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falling_down [wikipedia.org]

        in other words, running amok is nothing unique to malay culture, its just their term for it, like the americans call it going postal. all cultures have dudes who, for various reasons, external and internal, crack and start murdering left and right without apparent warning

        give me any example of a behavior "unique" to a certain culture, and you can, if you are intellectualy honest, find examples of that behavior in every other culture under differe

      • by tsstahl (812393)

        This is a major issue in psychology because so much research has used white male college students as subjects.

        They should quit paying participants with cheap beer to attract a more diverse pool of rats.

      • by ceoyoyo (59147)

        "Just look at something like Amok [wikipedia.org] in Malaysia."

        Did you mean to link to something else, or did you fail to read down to the part where the article notes expressions describing the phenomenon in other cultures around the world, including our own?

    • by ShakaUVM (157947)

      >>According to the article, only 13 Europeans and 13 people from China, Japan and Korea were asked to put a series of faces into categories such as sad and surprised

      Oh, social science. What *can't* you prove?

  • I don't buy it (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    In order to convince me, they'd have to find that East Asians form expressions with just their eyes that other East Asians can pick up more easily than Westerners. It makes no sense that East Asians can't read each other's facial expressions.

    • by Culture20 (968837)
      I also don't buy it. Westerners instantly recognize ^_^ as a smile, even if they don't think of the eyes an the most important part of a smile. "smiling eyes" are a well known facial expression.
      • Also "twinkle in his eye," or "sad eyes," or "making eyes," or "flirting eyes" ....
      • In fact it is the crinkling of the eyes are what differentiates a genuine smile, also known as a Duchenne smile [wikipedia.org], from a fake smile. The presence of subtle and involuntary muscle movements is a vital (if subconscious) aspect to correctly interpreting body language and facial expressions (Incidentally, this loss of subtle muscle expressions is also [part of] what makes Botox abusers look more fake and disingenuous.)

  • This is not news... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by geminidomino (614729) * on Friday August 14, 2009 @11:27AM (#29066217) Journal
    The exact thing has been written in many of the "manga" technique books or books comparing eastern and western comics I've read.
  • Misleading title (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Friday August 14, 2009 @11:29AM (#29066243)
    The title of the summary says that facial expressions are not global, but the summary says that the way people read facial expressions varies in different geographical areas. A more interesting test would be how accurate people from East Asia are at reading the facial expressions of Westerners and vice versa.
    • by amplt1337 (707922)

      The article answers that question -- the Easterners tested (a whopping sample of 13 people) tended to identify expressions as less-socially-threatening alternatives. So, surprise instead of fear or disgust, for example.

      • So, according to the contents of the article, the title of the article is wrong. If East Asians misread fear as surprise, it means that the expression of fear is universal, but East Asians (at least those in this study) don't read the signs that separate fear from surprise. This study fails to tell us anything we didn't know.
        If the sample size had been larger, the conclusions of this study might have had some value. The only value this study might have is as a test of methodology(using eye movement tracke
        • by amplt1337 (707922)

          Well, hold on.

          If East Asians misread fear as surprise, it means that the expression of fear is universal, but East Asians (at least those in this study) don't read the signs that separate fear from surprise.

          That doesn't follow. If we grant that East Asians experience fear, and are capable of expressing it to each other through faces (both of which seem trivially obvious), then the point would be "the signs that separate fear from surprise" are not universal -- or otherwise put, if not everybody recognizes something, then that something isn't really universal.

          The reference face used to represent fear is not universally perceived as such -- but the expression isn't personally handed down by God as

          • But the study did not say that the East Asians EXPRESSED fear differently, so you are reaching a conclusion not in evidence.
            The article explicitly says that East Asians misread fear as surprise. In order to reach the conclusion you are reaching another study must be done. Which is actually what I would like to see, a study looking to see how accurately Westerners perceive emotions on the faces of East Asians and how accurately East Asians perceive the emotions on the faces of Westerners.
            • by amplt1337 (707922)

              I don't think you're seeing what I'm saying.
              The article says that the East Asians misread a standardized "fear" face as surprise. If this was not a sincerely felt emotion, i.e. the person making the face wasn't *actually* afraid (as seems likely to me, especially since the article says that sincerely-felt emotions do read as universal), then we could just as easily say that the Western scientists misread a surprise face as fear when they labeled the reference face.

              From this evidence, we cannot claim that o

              • So you are saying that the researchers are reaching a conclusion not in evidence. That may be. However, we cannot reach your conclusion based on the evidence of the study. By your argument, the only conclusion we can reach from the study is that people from different regions read facial expressions differently (which is what I said in my original post).
                The study does not give us any evidence that the faces of East Asians actually express emotion differently, only that they read the facial expression of emo
          • the expression isn't personally handed down by God as The Official Expression Of Fear.

            True, but this study didn't say that facial expressions aren't global -- that was the Slashdot summary's misinterpretation.

            In fact, after watching Lie To Me, which seems to be based on some real science [wikipedia.org], I would suspect that while that expression is not necessarily going to be exactly the same, that facial expressions are, in fact, universal.

            In any case, this study was entirely about the perception of expressions, not the expressions themselves.

      • So, surprise instead of fear or disgust, for example.

        There was a blurb in an issue of Scientific American, and they found an impression bias among democrats and republicans by using the image of a man sufficiently blurred to look either surprised (or was it confused?) or angry. Democrats more often saw the confused face, republicans saw the anger.

  • I wonder if this has any impact on "lie detection" approach of reading very short-lived transient expressions. Are these global?
  • by Wireless Joe (604314) on Friday August 14, 2009 @11:32AM (#29066303) Homepage
    At first I was (:^O)

    but then I \(^o^)/
  • by wytcld (179112) on Friday August 14, 2009 @11:37AM (#29066389) Homepage

    This is about differences in how cultures track expressions, not in the expressions themselves. There's long been solid evidence that basic facial expressions are universal across human cultures, in their natural form. So if you're really smiling, it's the same muscles involved in much the same way, no matter what culture you're in. However, people also pretend to smile when it's not real. It's long been know that counterfeit expressions don't use all the same muscles, or the same overall pattern. People can be trained to spot this difference quite effectively.

    Now, with this recent research showing that different cultures monitor expressions differently, this implies that good counterfeiting is going to be specific to which monitoring patterns it is trying to fool. That would be interesting research. It should show, for instance, that people are better at counterfeiting expressions to other people from their same culture. People from another culture should be better at seeing through your counterfeit expressions than people from your own culture, if that other culture focuses on different parts of the face than yours.

    That cultures would focus differently fits with the extensive research on "joint attention." From infancy, we're wired to look at what we see other people looking at. We're very, very good a adopting the perceptual patterns of those around us, at a level that's almost automatic.

    But contra the broad claim here, genuine emotions expressed through facial expressions are not culture-specific, but universal to humanity, essentially genetic.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by readin (838620)
      It raises the question of whether the researches were using pictures of people who were genuinely angry, surprised, sad, etc., or pictures of people who were pretending to be those things. It also makes me wonder where were the people from who were pictured in the images.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      This is about differences in how cultures track expressions, not in the expressions themselves. There's long been solid evidence that basic facial expressions are universal across human cultures, in their natural form.

      Yes, but it's not just tracking, it's usage of expressions as you allude to. Do not think that because a Japanese man is smiling at you that he is expressing happiness. He could just as easily be expressing anger or sadness. It's similar to the way the Japanese avoid saying "no." "Yes" in Japanese is "hai" (pronounced somewhat like "Hi" in english.) A short "hai" might not indicate agreement, but simply acknowledgement much like we use 'Okay." A medium "hai" will indicate agreement, but a long drawn-out

      • by mvdwege (243851)

        Actually, from studying Japanese, I can tell you that the myth of Japanese not saying 'no' is just that: a myth.

        A Japanese person will most certainly not use 'ie'. However, there are multiple other ways to say no in Japanese, most usually by using the negative forms of a verb, '-nai' or '-arimasen' or a negating particle. The drawn out 'hai' is but one method of politely saying 'no'.

        Mart

    • What I don't understand is why didn't they use the perfect control group? Blind people.

      The same way they know that many songbirds have a language and apes don't is that a deaf songbird will not sing the same way as its parents, whereas a normal songbird will. Apes, however, make the same grunting whether deaf or not.

      Ask a few blind people, cross-culturally, to make expressions depicting puzzlement, concern, frustration, fatigue, pride, lust etc -- things a little more complex than a smile, frown, or l
  • This extraordinary conclusion reached with two groups of 13 people, one East Asian, the other Western. Well, that's that settled then.
  • ANGER. FEAR. SURPRISE. SADNESS. JOY. DISGUST.

    These six emotional responses produce identical facial expressions globally, including interactions of these (surprise + joy at a gift opening, frinstance), as long as that's the only input. Anything more, and the facial expression as well as interpretation of it (say, pride mixed in since the gift was from your child who made it by hand being mixed with the other two), is open to cultural differences.

    That was a single paragraph summary of facial expressions, glo

  • Duh? (Score:1, Interesting)

    Take a look at Japanese animation (google image search "animne") and compare it to the comics in most American newspapers. Notice any differences? (hint: Anime eyes are huge!) Local artists know what to exploit. To the East it's the eyes. That hasn't caught on so much in America because we look at the whole face and are distracted when features aren't proportionate.
  • co-author site (Score:4, Informative)

    by mzs (595629) on Friday August 14, 2009 @11:59AM (#29066713)

    Here is the site of one of the co-authors:

    http://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/staff/index.php?id=RJ002 [gla.ac.uk]

    The article in question is not quite published yet:

    Jack, R. E., Blais, C., Scheepers, C., Schyns, P. G., & Caldara, R. (in press) Cultural Confusions Show Facial Expressions are Not Universal Current Biology

    Here is an earlier one using the same methodologies (PDF):

    http://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/docs/download.php?type=PUBLS&id=1404 [gla.ac.uk]

    It is about where western and eastern people look at faces using eye tracking when for example learning or recognizing a face. There were some subtle differences.

  • There are two facial expressions that have the same universal meaning in every culture, expressed with the emotions of joy and disgust. Everything else has a cultural-context to varying degrees, but if you eat something that tastes horrible -- that face you make will be understood by anyone.

  • May 2007
    Re: emoticons and east asia (japan) focusing on eyes:
    http://science.slashdot.org/story/07/05/13/059239/Culture-Determines-Which-Emoticon-You-Use [slashdot.org]
  • See, they aren't like us, after all. Probably not even the same type of insect. We butterflies must not let the moths prevail. Ready the nuclear cannons, and prepare for the ultimate war!

  • by fiannaFailMan (702447) on Friday August 14, 2009 @01:00PM (#29067579) Journal

    They way they shake their heads when saying yes completely fucks with my mind every time!

    • by Maniacal (12626)
      I was going to post about this. It took me a long time to get used to that. My first experience was years back working with an Indian Oracle developer. I would be trying to explain something to him and he would be shaking his head and it would make me nuts. I would stop talking and ask what he didn't agree with. I could remember it for the rest of that conversation but later that day or the next day it would happen again and I'd just forget. I was never able to get comfortable with it. I recently sta
  • Definitions (Score:4, Insightful)

    by readin (838620) on Friday August 14, 2009 @01:05PM (#29067653)
    The article did not address the questions of definitions. Do we define words like "fear" and "surprise" the same way? Fear and surprise can be related - and where does shock fit in? Perhaps its not just a question of interpreting the emotions differently, but also an issue of applying different words to the same emotion. I see a shocked expression, but I have to assign it a value of "fear" or "surprise" - even if I have a perfect empathy for the emotion expressed in the picture, the word I choose will depend on how I've seen that word used in the past.

    Given that the test was given to people from different backgrounds, they likely grew up speaking different languages. Even though presumably the East Asian subjects may have learned English, their understandings of some English words may be based on translations of their native words, and the words may not be exact matches.

    One might suggest that this problem can be dodged by asking the subjects for a suggested physical response rather than for a word. Instead of "Is this person feeling 'fear' or 'surprise'" you might ask "Is this person thinking of running away or is this person thinking that he didn't expect what just happened" but even then cultural expectations about behavior would play a heavy role.
  • Anime Eyes (Score:2, Insightful)

    by NealBScott (1168201)
    So maybe there really *is* a reason that Japanese Anime is drawn with such large eyes.
    • by genner (694963)

      So maybe there really *is* a reason that Japanese Anime is drawn with such large eyes.

      Yes it's because Disney did it first when they made Bambi.

  • smilies (Score:1, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    My favorite is when I receive emails from Office Managers or non informed employees who have smiley programs installed and think that everyone can see their smilies that I receive as a capital letter 'J'

    • by MLease (652529)

      I was wondering where those Js were coming from! I'd recently noticed them popping up in emails from people, where a smiley emoticon was clearly intended (given the tone of the preceding comment). I thought maybe someone decided a J looked like a smile of some sort, but I thought it just looked dumb.

      -Mike

  • 13 + 13 people? And results from such utterly irrelevant sample are supposed to make news?

    Yeah, Slashdot, 'stuff that matters" indeed.

  • One study that I want to see done, that is in the same spirit as this one, is to figure out what features people from different cultures focus on when identifying a person. While this study shows that Asians tend to focus on the eyes and Westerners look at the face holistically, I wonder if that ports to person identification. Might shed some light on the "You all look the same" comments from both sides.
  • "East Asians participants tended to focus on the eyes of the other person"

    I could have told you that just from watching kung fu movies.

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