Universality Of Facial Expression

Communication between people is a complicated process. What we say may just be a ritualistic comment. We use body language and facial expression to confirm or deny the sentiments expressed verbally.

Facial expressions have been grouped into just six different expressions. These are Happy, Sad, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Surprise. The concept of this universality of facial expression stems from the idea that we humans all have the same set of facial muscles that we exercise when put on one expression or another.

Jack et al have been worrying about this universality of facial expression and decided to put it to the test like good psychologists and they have published their result in the early edition of PNAS this week.

Their experimental program used 30 people. 15 were Western Caucasian and 15 were Easte Asian. They all had to watch almost 5,000 computer animations of faces going through a range of expressions and classify them using the six categories. In addition they had to rate the emotional intensity. The animations showed both Western Caucasian faces and East Asian ones.

The results confirmed the universality of the six expressions, but only for the Western Caucasians. Things were quite a bit different for the East Asian faces. The expressions weren’t culturally universal and also the emotional intensities were not clear-cut.

Clearly we need to be careful about universality conclusions based on theory without a universal study to confirm. Culture can easily trump such simplifying assumptions.

  1. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/04/10/1200155109.full.pdf

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