Can you see it in my face?

Language might be a barrier when trying to communicate with people from other countries, but at least we can get an idea of what they’re thinking from their facial expressions, right? No matter where you are in the world you’ll know if someone’s happy or sad, scared or mad, won’t you?

The universality hypothesis, outlined in Charles Darwin‘s work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, proposes that six basic human emotions (happy, surprise, fear, disgust, anger and sad) are expressed using the same facial movements across all cultures. This would indicate that expressions of emotion are also recognised universally across the world. But psychologist Rachael Jack and colleagues at the University of Glasgow have recently published work that challenges the great evolutionary scientist’s theory.

Charles Darwin reckoned all humans express the six basic emotions using the same facial expressions. Kind of hard to tell how he’s feeling with all that hair on his face though…

The researchers looked at both Western and Eastern cultures, and examined their perceptions of computer-generated facial expressions. They found that, while Westerners represented the six basic human emotions through a distinct set of facial movements common to their group, those from Eastern cultures did not. They were also able to determine that people from Eastern cultures represent their emotions through lots of activity around their eyes, rather than using the same facial movements as those from Western cultures.

To test Darwin’s theory, Jack and her team used a unique computer graphics platform that randomly generates all possible three-dimensional movements of the human face (such as pulling the mouth up and down or widening or narrowing the eyes) to create 4800 virtual face animations. They then showed these animations to 15 Western Caucasian subjects and 15 East Asian subjects, and asked them to  categorise each one by emotion (one of the six basic emotions or ‘don’t know’) and intensity (ranging from ‘very low’ to ‘very high’). Half the animations were shown on virtual Western Caucasian faces, and half on East Asian faces.

The results showed that, while the Western faces fell into six distinct emotional categories, the results of the perceptions of East Asian faces showed a lot of overlap between categories – particularly for the emotions of surprise, fear, anger, disgust and sadness.

The team were also able to identify where and when on each face each culture represents emotional intensity and found that in East Asian faces, emotions are represented primarily with early movements of the eyes for happiness, fear and anger, while in Western faces emotion is represented in different areas. If you have ever come across emoticons commonly used in East Asian culture, you can maybe see now why ^.^ means happy face and >.< means angry face!

Jack explains how the results of this study could be applied to enhance interaction between different cultures:

“Our data could be used to improve communication channels via virtual social interactions. For example, if you consider a business interaction between an Easterner and a Westerner, facial expressions from the sender could be read and interpreted (as with language) by our system to produce (on the face of the sender, rendered as a 4D model) a representative facial expression recognisable by the receiver. Similarly, our data can inform the development of culturally valid avatars and companion robots. For games, developers could use the models to customise expressions on the avatars that the player sees depending on the culture of the player.”

Having shown that the six basic emotions in Western Caucasian culture are not the same in East Asian culture, the Glasgow University group are now looking at determining which emotions are basic in East Asian culture. They are addressing this question by mapping the conceptual landscape of emotions in different cultures and expanding their 4D models to include a much broader range of socially relevant facial expressions, such as shame, pride, and guilt.

To find out more: Facial expressions of emotion are not culturally universal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, R.E. Jack, O.G.B. Garrod, H. Yu, R. Caldara, P.G. Schyns, 2012, 109, 7241


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