Reviewing cultural perspectives of facial expressions in humans


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The study of facial expressions has been going on for hundreds of years. It is well accepted that facial expressions are an instrument of communication which send out signals about the individuals emotions. It is common knowledge to agree that we rarely find it hard to recognise such emotions as anger or happiness on an individuals face. We are not conscious of our highly skilled ability of recognising certain facial expressions let alone instantly producing one. Some emotions are brought forward entirely from automatic bodily functions and some say it is nearly impossible for one to conceal them .e.g. a blush of shame or Pallor of fear (Liggett, 1974).This specific area of Non verbal communication has many questions to address and which commonly arise. Are emotions universally recognized by facial expressions? This then suggests that there are specific facial expressions that are associated with specific conscious experiences. Is there support to draw conclusion that these facial expressions and particular conscious feelings are actually portrayed correctly by the verbal description given to them? This then suggests that language is crucially important when testing ones recognition of facial expressions. If there is a constant association between specific expressions and specific feelings and their innate connection, can one adapt them through experience or even culturally filtering? Since around the 20th century, most anthropologists suggested that facial expressions were socially learned and so different in different cultures. Current anthropological perspectives tend to focus on differences between universal and culture-specific explanations. Facial expression is either interpreted as a human universal, with basic expressions represented in humans (Brown, 1990), or suggested to be an output of cultural differences .Birdwhistell (1970) reviewed facial express studies and found that these gestures have no identical social meaning in all societies. Where as Ekman (1973) argued that both culture and biological elements are important. Ekman suggests that a facial expression has an innate basis that is then filtered by cultural learning.


Darwin (1872) was one of the first people to scientifically study facial expressions. He suggested that emotion display through facial expressions served many functions for the human species to survive and that certain displays are biologically programmed and so subject to natural selection just like any other survival behaviour. These ideas are strongly supported by Graddol (et el 1987) research claims. Darwin's, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animal work inspired research on facial expressions and neuroanatomy, biological and social function work of emotions (e.g., Izard, 1989; Kling, 1986). Adaptation suggests a genetic rooted skill to self-regulate and alter expression-feeling connection in order to perform social norms in a specific social interaction. (Jürgens & Ploog, 1970; Ploog, 1986).Ekman (1975) studied New Guinea tribesman and found that their facial expressions in response to various emotional cues matched western culture and correctly interpreted emotions portrayed by westerners in photographs. The tribesmen in New Guinea have not been in contact with any media or western culture, suggesting that there is a genetic influence.


There are six basic emotional expressions which have been accepted to be universal, linked to specific emotions, in both performance and perception being; disgust," "fear," "joy," "surprise," "sadness," and "anger (Ekman and Keltner, 1997). On the other hand some argue that different meanings behind expressions may signal similar emotions in people of different cultures (Fridlund, 1994; Russell and Fernandez-Dols, 1997). One can not over look the fact of universal behavioural phenotypes which are the movements making the expressions of "disgust," "fear," "joy," "surprise," "sadness," and "anger" (Russell and Fernandez-Dols, 1997). These expressions being universal are supported by people from different cultures and social backgrounds as well as research into deaf and blind studies (Darwin, 1872/1998; Izard, 1977; Ekman and Keltner, 1997).There is universality in recognition of facial expressions when there high levels of control with the right criteria are used with in that study (Izard, 1971). IUN theory states that facial expression can be suggested to be innate but not displayed in all cultures. Cultural differences in socialization, tradition and beliefs could explain this. An expression might be innate and universal but show cultural variability due to meaning attributed to it. There are studies of facial expressions in the congenitally blind and studies that compare expressions in different cultures. That shows evidence that some patterns of facial movement are universal and can be suggested that universal expressions are also innate (Ekman, 1994).


Matsumoto's study suggests universal recognition of some facial expressions for emotion, which is supported by others replications. Judges from different cultures are asked to look at photographs and then to select the appropriate emotional label for the choices given to them. For universal recognition the intended emotion needs to be selected which is significantly greater than chance and greater than an arbitrary level, (70%, across all cultures). Therefore producing a Pan cultural basis of the emotions .Although, looking closer there are considerable difference, happiness: ranged from %68 for Africans to %97 for Swiss. Even with this difference there was still a gap with in cultural research as the aim of the study which found this difference (Izard 1994) was to support universality not investigate the root of the differences. This suggests that universal emotions exist which supported Darwin (1872) and Tomkins (1962, 1963) stating that it may be a cultural influence on recognition.

Cultures may discourage emotion recognition and labelling or lack openness to perceive these emotions due to the fact the emotion is not discussed, resulting in decreased recognition accuracy rates across various emotions, than one certain emotion. Finally, cultures may influence people in accurately perceiving others. Due to ignorance or politeness one my not perceive others to be culturally different. Some other cultures may be more at tuned with interpreting different cultural backgrounds. Previous work hasn't directly compared cultures where as this study does by testing cultural differences in the recognition of universal emotions.

This study involved American and Japanese participants viewed photos of facial expressions portraying an emotion (from FACS)( Ekman & Friesen, 1975),An equal number of Caucasian and Japanese posers as well was males and females. Each poser appeared only once in the entire stimulus set. Participants selected a single emotion term from a list which they judged the emotion to be and then an overall intensity of the expressions was selected. 41 Americans and 44 Japanese college undergraduates were used.

48 posed photos, 8 photos each of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise.

There was a high agreement in interpretations of emotion and was portrayed by other studies. A repeated measure was used for both cultures. Translations for the instructions were reliable. The participants were tested in groups and shown the stimuli twice. First view the participants selected the appropriate emotion and second the participants selected the intensity of the facial expression by using a 9-point scale.

Matsumoto tested for universality of the facial expressions using both ANOVA and chi square methods to analyse the raw data and both produced the same result. Being that for all emotions, both cultures scored significantly greater than chance and so confirming universality of the 6 emotions. Although he also found that anger and fear judgements for Japanese are low but still these cultural differences in the recognition of these emotions are subtle. Americans were more accurate than the Japanese at recognizing four of the six emotions. Both cultures agreed that happiness was the easiest to identify and fear was the hardest to identify.

Possible explanations for these differences are suggested in his discussion. One being that the stimuli used to portray the expressions may have been unclear and so produced the differences. The happiness and surprise stimulus may have simply been better portrayals and producing a better judgement. For the Japanese, negative emotional display is discouraged which may decrease accuracy scores for the Japanese recognition suggesting perception to be discouraged too. Perception difference of emotion suggested to be linked to differences in the cultural display rules associated with emotions.


Jack et el 2009 argues that the acceptances of universal facial expression is not the full story. Jack conducted an investigation comparing western participants to East Asian participants. Participants where asked to categorised 12 photos into six core emotions being happy, surprise, fear, disgust and sadness using the system FACS created by Ekman. She found the East Asian participants made significantly more errors with the emotions of fear and disgust than western participants. Though it seemed that when the East Asian participants were in doubt they would favour the less threaten emotion .e.g. surprise which could be explained by the suggestion Matsumoto (1992) expressed in his study being that the photos of these certain emotion could of been ambiguous and perceptual difference could be due to cultural sanctions.

The use of an eye tracking tool found that East Asians focused more on the eye regions where westerns focused evenly on both eye and mouth and nose areas. When the East Asian system for judging a facial expression was sampled onto a computer program, it focused more on the eye area. Jack found that the computer confused fear and surprise as well as anger and disgust. Suggesting a need for an over view of all areas on the face is need to make an accurate judgment of facial expressions. Jack suggests that certain emotions are expressed slightly differently in East Asian, to the point where individuals from the culture learn to focus on different facial regions. This theory combined with the East Asian norm of frowning on negative emotional display suggests a cultural influence on facial expression not purely a genetic source. Further research for adaptive strategies would be helpful in fully understanding the interaction between cultural influence and genetic bases.

This study serves support for recognition of facial expression not being universal and helps explain the few difference in Matsumoto's study and flaws found in others study too .e.g. Ekman, but it only shows confusion between four of the six universal facial expressions with a very small sample of participants the reliability of this study is then questioned. More replications of this study and result is needed to support this theory (Jack,R 2009)


Russell(1994) brings in to account the question: Can a subject truly have the skill to objectively label an subjective emotional feeling as measured by emotion-recognition and emotion-labelling techniques. Both of these techniques are language dependent. There are lot of literate people who find it hard to describe ones emotion. (Izard & Harris, in press; Izard & Malatesta, 1987). The supporting data for this argument of universal facial expressions are independent of language-dependent methods, evidence on the ontogeny of facial expressions in early development supports that facial expressions are innate linking them to the human genetic root therefore suggesting universality.

There has been some criticism of Forced-choice format used for assessing Participants skill to sort facial expressions into emotion categories showed support for the IUH theory mentioned in the introduction ( Ekman, 1994), even if it has a language based focus. Though when this method was modified to solve some language based problems it still supports early cross-cultural research (Izard, 1971).Russell's (1994) was critical of the method used in the early cross-cultural emotion-recognition studies which forced research to adapt and improve the method producing the same result.

The Facial Action Coding System by (Ekman and Friesen, 1978) has been used to objectively study muscles actions in facial expressions. For each facial muscle is a specific facial movement or movements (Goodmurphy and Ovalle, 1999). Hauser (1996) Argues that there are very few objective methods like Facial Action Coding System, out there to help produce supportive evidence for universal facial expressions, which highlights the use of FACS to be highly reliable.(FACS)(Ekman and Friesen, 1978; Ekman and Rosenberg, 1997).


The Matsumoto study was positive in many ways one being the control for the possible

Influence of perceived intensity on their recognition of the emotions, through intensity rating. Making his findings more reliable and accepted, which help any replication studies easier to find the same result.

The participant are from at least two cultures, viewing the same expressions, and their

Choices were then compared. The facial expressions meet some criteria for validly and reliably portraying the universal emotions. The individuals posing the expressions appear only once in the stimulus. All these elements of the study helped meet criteria that previous studies did not (Matsumoto, 1992).

One reason why facial expression may vary across culture is that in each cultural social context, the type of facial expression that is permitted to be displayed is different .e.g. the facial expression in response to bereavement may in principle be similar around the world but a culture may see death as a celebration not a time for distress and so apply a form of censorship to there universal facial expression.

Ekman, Sorenson, and Friesen (1969) studies of isolated, preliterate cultures were an essential part of the evidence for the hypothesis of universal facial expressions of emotions (Ekman, 1994,.Ekman, Friesen, & Ellsworth, 1972) focused on literate cultures. There may be effects of methodological problems; there are two alternative explanations for the findings from literate cultures. First, a common experience or communicative responses could of increased an adaptive advantage (similar to culture-constant learning). Second, these certain facial expressions might have emerged one or more cultures and spread through art or story descriptions. Recognition and labelling findings from literate cultures show support for the universality of facial expressions. The studies showed broad samples in the United States, South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The studies are from many cultures and languages, and positively showed no problem in translations of emotion categories or native speaker for emotion-labelling and emotion-recognition tasks. The results used single ethnic group, Caucasian, for photos. The studies showed similarity across cultures in recognition and labelling of facial expressions even with differences in body language e.g. gestures or tradition. So why is there a difference with these forms or non verbal communication and not facial expressions? (Ekman, P. 1994).

One study between Americans and Japanese highlights the importance of cultural research into facial expression. When a high status person was present, Japanese participants censored negative emotions by producing a polite smile more than Americas. When there was no one present Japanese and American participants showed the same emotional expression which watch emotion provoking scenes. Show how misunderstandings in cross cultural communication happens easier when one does not realise the different display rules that make for a different expression and there fore not a different underlying emotion (Blakemore,C & Jennett, S.2001)

The overview of research provides support for both genetic bases for facial expression as well as cultural bases for facial expression but the most logical theory is the one pointing to the interaction of both. There is strong evidence for both and no reason why these two perspectives show be opposing a all.A new combine approach is obviously needed to show the innate root for the basic emotions but the cultural influences for variations within those facial expressions.

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