Facial Expressions of Emotion Still Culturally Universal

By Neuroskeptic | April 19, 2012 5:43 pm

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.

ResearchBlogging.orgJack, 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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: evopsych, faces, history, papers
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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05660407099521700995 petrossa

    Logically the limbic system has adaptive capabilities. But for such an ancient structure to be differentiated already via recent additions such as culture is absurd.

    The paper is therefore confirmation bias. They looked for something they wanted to find.

  • http://asefixesscience.wordpress.com/ Åse

    Yes, there has been this kind of assault against the pancultural/universal idea as if it is something to tear down, and not something that was a first approximation of constraints, that then is interestingly (and for human understanding importantly) modified by culture and learning. Sometimes it reads as if there is no real anchoring in the history of this research. The categories have always been fuzzy, there are ideas that there are more (or maybe fewer) focal expressions, perhaps. It is a bit of a strawman. It is interesting using moving faces (I had wanted to do that, after having been shown eye-tracking work that indicates that we look very differently at moving faces than static faces). But, I get a little annoyed with the inflammatory headlines.

    Emotional expression research needs to move in a more dynamic/interactive direction (and it is, and it has always been cross-cultural) – but trying to recapitualte the early “it is biological – no it is cultural” kind of dichotomy ends up being annoying. Then again, I'm not the divisive debating kind-

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05660407099521700995 petrossa

    Here it's not question of controversy but timescale. Ofcourse in the long run the environmental feedback will have a lasting genetic compound causing the basic structures to respond differently across cultures. Why not. It would be quite impossible to survive as a species if it didn't

    Just not in a few 1000 years as is claimed here.

  • Anonymous

    Didn't Paul Ekman answer this conclusively? I can see how there would be cultural differences for gestures like winking but fundamentally, emotionally, apes are apes.

  • Anonymous

    How about language? Do the English words for these emotions exactly match the words used by the Asians' language(s) ?

  • Ivana Fulli

    petrossa will know better than I but I think that autistic persons often have a lot of difficulties with the non-verbal cultural gestures like actually any visitor in a foreign country:

    Like for example when you go to Greece they say “No” not by moving their head from left to right and the opposite but by lifting their chin as much as they can.

    Only that aspies often have trouble with the cultural gesture of their own country.

    Second:
    Of course aspies often also have difficulties in learning to read universal facial expression but often enough they can do it when they advance in age -and I would like to be sure that professionnal social training is more helpful than time.

    But all the studies showing to the world that aspies look at the mouth of people sepaking insted of the eyes never convinced me of being the proof of a different brain wiring in itself: my take on it -not a popular one I am afraid since fame has been achieved by some showing the world what I do not believe in- is that aspies look at the mouth because they cannot listen and look at non verbal clues and they look at the mouth in order to listen better to what is said- like the deaf people do watching “the words” since the mouthes take different shapes for different sounds emitting.

  • biff

    Body language and gestures such as head nods are clearly culturally diverse and have never been claimed to be otherwise. Facial expressions, for seven emotions have, however, been proven to be universal across many cultures including the stone age Papua New Guinea Fore tribe who are isolated from external visual stimuli such as TV and photos.
    What the study fails to mention is the influence of 'display rules' – the suppression that many Asian people employ to squelch or mask facial displays of emotion when they are in the presence of others – especially elderly relatives or superiors. Yet in private the emotional displays on the face of Asian subjects correlated with Western subjects in Ekman's research.
    This is weak research that has consumed valuable research grants with findings disconnected with what it seeks to prove. The sample group of 15 +15 a people across the 2 cultures is flawed as they all live in Scotland!
    So I share the last line of the blog in that the “authors' overblown rhetoric makes me disgusted, sad and angry” also.

  • omg

    I agree with the paper. Ekman never made sense to me. Universal facial customs in the Western world I get, or when white man visits a tribe – universally facial expectations when imperialists, colonialists visit. Showing photographs to a remote tribe.. jeez why not take a photo of them, take their soul.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05660407099521700995 petrossa

    @ Ivana

    It's actually the disconnection between the limbic system and the higher order processes that causes the lack of coordination between emotive stimuli and higher order responses.

    Multiple studies have shown patterned white matter variations in autistic brains, some of which leading to this disconnect.

    Basically what happens is that whilst the limbic system is fully functional its output isn't processed. This causes an unexpected feedback to the limbic system which in turn gets its knickers in a twist and unleashes a torrent of stimuli to make itself heard.

    The root cause of the typical autist outbursts.

    I've written extensively about this here:

    http://www.psychforums.com/search.php?keywords=i+told+you+so&terms=all&author=petrossa&fid%5B%5D=145&sc=1&sf=titleonly&sr=posts&sk=t&sd=d&st=0&ch=300&t=0&submit=Search

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05660407099521700995 petrossa

    @ Ivana

    It's actually the disconnection between the limbic system and the higher order processes that causes the lack of coordination between emotive stimuli and higher order responses.

    Multiple studies have shown patterned white matter variations in autistic brains, some of which leading to this disconnect.

    Basically what happens is that whilst the limbic system is fully functional its output isn't processed. This causes an unexpected feedback to the limbic system which in turn gets its knickers in a twist and unleashes a torrent of stimuli to make itself heard.

    The root cause of the typical autist outbursts.

    I've written extensively about this here:

    http://www.psychforums.com/search.php?keywords=i+told+you+so&terms=all&author=petrossa&fid%5B%5D=145&sc=1&sf=titleonly&sr=posts&sk=t&sd=d&st=0&ch=300&t=0&submit=Search

  • ivana Fulli MD

    biff,

    Thanks about your informed critic:///the suppression that many Asian people employ to squelch or mask facial displays of emotion when they are in the presence of others – especially elderly relatives or superiors.///

    petrossa

    My question really was : are not the aspies proving more difficulties with cultural gestures -those who are pure human cultural construction than with the genuine display of emotion?

    An indirect proof might be that aspies often feel more socialy at ease in a foreign country-(and I am not telling to a person frim Holland living in France that a foreigner is excused for social impairs!)

    My thought on that is that sensory difficulties make it difficult for aspies to listen to what is said and look for non-verbal messages at the same time -making aspies look at the speakers 'lips instead of looking at their eyes when they watch a movie.
    In vivo conversation they will often look to the ceiling or whatever when listenning to what I say when I am only speaker but in a group -like a café asperger- they would look at people'lips (to check who is doing the talking?)

    My aim was just to give an example of how even clear experimental findings (of aspies watching a movie following with their gaze the actors' lips when NT follow more the actors'eyes)might be given a premature dogma significance.

    Thanks petrossa for your informations. I will read it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05660407099521700995 petrossa

    @ivana

    Behavioral studies are mostly useless. The separate parts of the sensory processing system are still functional, they are just not integrated in the same way. Which makes most standardized behavioral study methods pointless.

    One assumes there is one proper way of functionality, the mean, which is not necessarily the correct one

    Consensus in any form is not a valid scientific foundation. Consensus that mean behavior is the correct one is neither, since the mean behavior is a consensus in itself.

    As in all other things the mean is inherently meaningless. It's a random standard.

    If one takes all neurological based syndromes such PD, Schizophrenia, adhd etc there is one thing that sticks out like a sore thumb: genetical white matter variations.

    Their commonality centers around the limbic integration. It's hindered.

    This imho points to a epigenetic cause where the brain over the course last 15000 years or more starts to adapt to the limbic response system being insufficient.

    Extrapolating it seems reasonable to assume this is an ongoing natural adaptation process where as usual all kinds of variations crop up and the most viable ones take hold.

    pd's aren't that viable, nor deep autism. Aspergers comes somewhat closer but is far from perfect. One day humankind can become truly human and shed the burden of being a mere puppet of the limbic system if we let nature take its course.

    Emotional subjugation will be relegated to its proper place. The history books.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Anonymous: “How about language? Do the English words for these emotions exactly match the words used by the Asians' language(s)?”

    Good question, one option to check whether language was an issue would be to take Europeans who don't speak English as a native language, but who are “Westerners”, that way you'd be distinguishing between language and 'culture'.

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    Neuroskeptic 22 April 2012 10:12,
    ///Good question, one option to check whether language was an issue would be to take Europeans who don't speak English as a native language, but who are “Westerners”, that way you'd be distinguishing between language and 'culture'.///

    I am afraid I have to disagree since I was priviledged to be friend with a japanese psychiatrist and his family in my youth: at that time-long ago – japanese people just couldn't conceive “depressed” nor as a diseaese neither as a feeling .

    Big Pharma put a lot of effort in order to change that but the fact that Japanese people have suppressed the term schizophrenia from medical vocabularies is- I hope -the first symptom of recovery from greedy -and imperialistic of sort- Westerners influence on their conception of life and feelings.

    Even Russian psychiatrists and psychologists have a different concept of depression with their Babinski and whoever depression description…

    NB: My point is not at all that human emotions are not universal- it is just that the differecne between cultural display of emotion on your face and “instinctive” display of emotion is not that easy to tell.

    Thanks again to biff on that score.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17207837776193380053 Ase

    The question of language and how that helps categorize is interesting. There was just a paper (in Emotion I think, gah) with Barsalou and Feldman-Barrett as co-authors (but not first authors), where they used that word-cateogry exhaustion that xkcd just had such a cool cartoon about to suppress the word category, and found effects on how people used expressive information (they got worse). Wierzbicka has talked a lot about the lexicon, and just being Swedish I had issues with disgust as an emotion (as the equivalent word is used just for the stinky gustatory repellent stuff), but, of cousre, we do have a notion of revulsion and dislike.

    I also like the ideas of cultural dialects when it comes to expressions (Hess and Elfenbein have looked at this).

    There are clearly very interesting cultural differences when it comes to the whole emotion complex, and there is good research coming out here (and I try – not sure how good I am though).

  • s.onat

    I dont think any of the comments including NS's main message is justified. Taken to face value this data clearly suppports the non-universality hypothesis:

    The whole red column is dissapeared on the right panel, the westerner's green column is nearly half full with red lines,on the right panel all the red lines are spread over the middle four columns.

    If you are not fine with this interpretation, you still need to justify your point by staying close to the data. Otherwise you dont need data anyway, and i dont get the point of why this paper is here presented.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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