Cultural confusions show that facial expressions are not universal

Jack, R.E. , Blais, C., Scheepers, C., Schyns, P.G. and Caldara, R. (2009) Cultural confusions show that facial expressions are not universal. Current Biology, 19(18), pp. 1543-1548. (doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.07.051)

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Central to all human interaction is the mutual understanding of emotions, achieved primarily by a set of biologically-rooted social signals evolved for this purpose facial expressions of emotion. Although widely considered to be the universal language of emotion [1-3], some negative facial expressions consistently elicit lower recognition levels among Eastern compared to Western groups (see [4] for a meta-analysis and review [5, 6]). Focusing on the decoding of facial expression signals, we merge behavioral and computational analyses with novel spatio-temporal analyses of eye movements showing that Eastern observers use a culture-specific decoding strategy that is inadequate to reliably distinguish universal facial expressions of fear and disgust. Rather than distribute their fixations evenly across the face as Westerners do, Eastern observers persistently fixate the eye region. Using a model information sampler, we demonstrate that by persistently fixating the eyes, EA observers sample ambiguous information, thus causing significant confusion errors. Our results question the universality of human facial expressions of emotion, highlighting their true complexity, with critical consequences for cross-cultural communication and globalization.

Item Type:Articles
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Caldara, Professor Roberto and Scheepers, Dr Christoph and Jack, Professor Rachael and Schyns, Professor Philippe
Authors: Jack, R.E., Blais, C., Scheepers, C., Schyns, P.G., and Caldara, R.
College/School:College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences > School of Psychology & Neuroscience
College of Science and Engineering > School of Psychology
Journal Name:Current Biology
Publisher:Cell Press
ISSN (Online):1879-0445
Published Online:29 September 2009

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