Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Facial expressions and culture

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Facial expressions and culture:
To what extent are emotions universally recognised from facial expressions?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Paul Ekman's depiction of basic facial expressions

Well over 100 years ago Charles Darwin theorised on cross-cultural perspectives of Emotions in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals . Since that time, cross-cultural comparisons on emotions have been extensively research, producing endless bodies of research on the topic (Eid & Diener, 2001).

Emotions have been proven to be a complex facet of humanity that we all experience in our everyday lives. Emotions are multidimensional, in that they exist as biological, subjective, purposive, and a social phenomena (Reeve, 2009; Izard, 1993). Emotion is even apparent in the first year of human life, through effective nonverbal facial emotional expressions (Fridlund, 1992 as cited in Reeve, 2009). For example at birth infants are able to express joy, interest and disgust, and by just 6 months, infants are able to also express sadness, anger and fear (Izard, 1989; Huebner & Izard, 1988 as cited in Reeve, 2009).

There are many views on emotion, what are they? How are they perceived? What causes emotion? Which emotions are fundamental? And are my emotions recognized in the right context? Viewpoints on emotions are vast and varied and come from things such as Chinese fortune cookies, the bible, many philosophers, the Dalai Lama, to Buddhism, to modern day cognitive research (Reeve, 2009).

Emotion researchers believe emotions such as anger and fear, amongst others, are constructive responses to fundamental life tasks (Reeve, 2009). The spiritual leader of Buddhism – the Dalai Lama believes that emotions such as anger are fear are destructive and that people need to try to lessen destructive emotions, particularly craving, agitation, and hatred (Reeve, 2009). Buddhists spend years of meditation learning contentment, calm and compassion (Reeve, 2009). In contrast to this, a number of western cultures aim to lessen negative emotions through medicines, and drug therapies (Reeve, 2009). Many eastern cultures practice meditation to transform negative emotions into positive emotions (Reeve, 2009). Emotions are addressed in different ways from different cultures throughout the world.

This chapter aims to be a self-help guide to the universal recognition of emotions from facial expressions. We will look at what emotions are, what social functions they serve, how the face makes facial expressions, and cultural views on emotions, and cover many other aspects of this topic.

An interesting note on infants. . .

A child who expresses emotions such as anger or sadness is much more likely to keep a toy in an argument over a child who does not openly express emotion (Camrass, 1977; Reynolds, 1982 as cited in Reeves, 2009).

Introduction to facial expressions[edit | edit source]

Paul Ekman's depiction of happiness
Paul Ekman's depiction of anger
Paul Ekman's depiction of sadness

Facial expressions[edit | edit source]

Basic facial expressions[edit | edit source]

Research suggests that there are six basic emotions coupled with facial expressions that are pan-culturaly recognised (Haidt & Keltner, 1999; Ekman & Freissen, 1971; Ekman, Sorensen, & Freissen, 1969). These emotions are; happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, anger, and disgust (Haidt & Keltner, 1999).According to Haidt et al. (1999) until a little over ten years ago, there has been minimal research done using more than Ekman & Freissen's (1971) six basic emotions.

Movements of facial musculature[edit | edit source]

36 of the 80 muscles in the face are used for facial expression (Reeve, 2009). Eight muscles are primarily used in different parts of the face, to differentiate amongst basic emotions. The face can be broken up into 3 parts; upper, middle, and lower parts of the face in order to distinguish muscles. The upper half of the face including the eyes and forehead has three major muscles:

  • Frontalis – which is over the forehead.
  • Corrugator – which lies between the eyebrows.
  • Orbicularis Oculi – around the eyes.

The middle section of the face uses two major muscles:

  • Zygomaticus – which runs from the coners of the mouth toward the cheekbones.
  • Nasalis – over the bridge of the nose, causing the nose to wrinkle.

The lower faces uses three major muscles:

  • Depressor – downturns the corners of the mouth.
  • Orbicularis Oris – circular muscle around the lips.
  • Quadratus Labii – turns out the mouth.

(Reeve, 2009; Ekman & Friesen, 1975; Izard, 1971).

What muscles do you use when engaging in basic emotion?

Anger Fear Disgust Sadness Joy
Corrugator Frontalis Nasalis Corrugator Orbicularis Oculi
Orbicularis Oculi Corrugator Zygomaticus Orbicularis Oculi Zygomaticus
Orbicularis Oris Orbicularis Oculi Orbicularis Oris Depressor
Quadratus Labii

Emotions[edit | edit source]

Emotions are more than what meets the eye (Reeve, 2009). There is a difficulty in definitively defining what emotions are and what purpose they serve. in terms of social phenomena, we use facial, postural, and vocal signs to communicate the quality and intensity of our emotions to others. some of our emotions are socially motivated rather than biologically. It's difficult to think this way, as it is asserted that we smile because we are happy! Often, people smile even when they are not particularly happy, people smile to facilitate social interaction.

A smile

Research has shown that we smile for a number of reasons other than emotional expression. for example, young children typically smile when approaching a stranger, to appease them (Connolly & Smith, 1972). When an adult feels socially embarrassed they are more inclined to smile (Kraut & Johnston, 1979). According to Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1972) and Van Hooff (1972) a smile can be used as a universal greeting to nonverbally communicate friendliness.

Inerestingly, Van Hooff found similar attitudes toward smiling with Chimpanzees, in that chimpanzees use smiling to deflect unwanted hostile behaviour from dominant primates, and also to engage in friendly interactions.

Universal recognition of emotions[edit | edit source]

Ekman & Friessen (1971) found that when asking members of New Guinea culture were asked to show how their face would look (i.e. what emotion hey would show) when in different emotional contexts, for example: "you are angry and about to fight" - universality was shown through American observers identifying the emotional contexts the expressions were intended to portray. this research is imperial due to the fact that it cannot be attributed to prior contact of American culture and remote New Guinea culture, where as many experiments contain flaws of cultures being previously exposed to mass media models of emotions.

Ekman (1972) conducted another experiment in which a Japanese and an American participant unknowlingly recorded, watched a stress-inducing film whilst having their facial expressions monitored. The study showed that both participants had virtually the same facial responses. however, when a scientist was present during the film, the Japanese participant masked their facial expressions more than the American participant. this could be attributed to a number of things; including cultural differences in portraying emotions.

Categorisation of emotions[edit | edit source]

Human's divide the world into different categories (Russell, 1991). You divide and have a word for the colours, plants, family members, and emotions in English, people of other colours have words to describe these categories aswell, but with some differences and similarities. The following passage is taken from Li Chi, a Chinese encyclopaedia from the 1st century:

What are the feelings of men? They are joy, anger, sadness, fear, love, disliking, and liking. These seven feelings belong to men without their learning them (Chai & Chai, 1885/1967).

It's interesting, because Ekman (1992) nineteen centuries later, and from a completely adverse culture, came to a similar conclusion! it is deemed by many, that basic emotions are innate and belong to every person regardless of culture. There are words for certain emotions in every language that don't translate to English, for example:


Schadenfreude meaning gaining pleasure from another's displeasure.


itoshi meaning longing for a loved one who is absent.


obhiman meaning sadnesses caused by a loved one.

this raises questions of whether emotions are categorised differently by different cultures and whether we may not know of certain emotions as they do not definitively exist in the English language (Russell, 1991).

Wierzbicka (1986) also contributes to the categorisation of emotions by stating that although there is no simple English equivalent it is possible to explain in english, what an emotion from another language is, through decomposing the word. Wierzbicka (1986) uses an example of the Polish word Tęsknota, breaking it down as:

  • X feels Tęsknota to Y
  • X is far away from Y
  • X thinks of Y
  • X feels something good towards Y
  • X wants to be together with Y
  • X knows he or she cannot be together with Y
  • X feels something bad because of that

we think of several English words that could be used to "translate" Tęsknota into English, such as: Homesick, miss, or nostalgia, but non of these words would apply if, for example we were using the word Tęsknota in a situation where a daughter was leaving her parents to study in a distant city. Her parents would be Tęsknić (verb) but this is not to say that her parents would be homesick for her, nor is it to say that they felt nostalgia for her. We could say that they missed her but this does not carry nearly as much weight as what the word Tęsknota intends.

In case you were wondering. . .

Tęsknota in this sense relates to the word homesick, but it is not about the "experiencer" i.e. the daughter moving from home, it is, in this case, about the parents being Tęsknić toward the daughter, much like a deep missing and real separation in space.

Wierzbicka (1986) asks the question; if there is no word for an emotion such as Tęsknota in English, does this mean that native English speakers will not experience this feeling? It is obvious that this feeling would have been felt by native English speakers, it is more the point that the Anglo-Saxon culture has not deemed this emotion important enough for a name. Wierzbicka (1986) states that if an emotion has not been given a particular word to explain it, it does not mean that we cannot use a compilation of everyday words to explain an emotion, for example:

He felt as a man might do on returning home and finding his own house locked up or She felt as a young man might do before a battle

Fundamental emotions: Are some emotions more fundamental than others?[edit | edit source]

It is agreed by most that there are a wide and varied number of emotions. There is debate however, over whether some emotions are more fundamental than others (Ekman & Davidson, 1994). Ekman, (1994a) found a common ground for this argument, in families of emotions. For example Anger has been coined as a basic emotion, but anger can also act as a family of emotions, ranging from; hostility, to resentment, to envy (Ekman, 1992). Ekman (1992) found that there are at least five basic emotion families; anger, fear, disgust, sadness, and enjoyment (Reeve, 2009). These basic emotions are varied through culture and socialisation.

Emotions across cultures[edit | edit source]

Scollon, Diener, Oishi, & Biswas-Diener (2004) conducted a study on emotions across cultures, which looked at the frequency of specific emotions in different cultures, and cultural differences in emotion. Their experiment consisted of 6 European American, 33 Asian American, 91 Japanese, 160 Indian, and 80 Hispanic students addressing self-report measures, experience sampling, and recollection of emotions over one week. Scollon et al. (2004) saw that cultural differences emerged for almost all measures.

Pride: Scollon et al. (2004) observed the most substantial cultural differences in measures of pride. It was shown that Asian American's, Japanese, and Indian's in particular reported lower levels of pride in the daily lives, than European Americans, and Hispanic students overall. Scollon et al. (2004) speculated that emotions such as pride may be either considered pleasant or unpleasant emotions in different cultures thus affecting their overall prevalence.

Guilt: Guilt was also observed to be substantial in cultural variability, in this experiment. It was shown than both Japanese and Aisan American's reported the most guilt. Scollon et al. (2004) found this results to be consistent with theories that suggest that both Hispanic and European American people emphasise pleasant emotions regardless of whether they are engaging or not.

Anger: Briggs (1970) found that Utku Eskimo's strongly dissaproved expressions of anger, whilst Schieffelin, (1983) found that Kaluli people from Papua New Guinea are encouraged to show their anger, and it is widely expected.

An interesting note. . .

Individuals from Asian cultures tend to report greater negative emotions,and less pleasant emotions than Americans which is consistent with reported lower levels of overall life satisfaction, in subjective well-being (Scollon et al., 2004).

Research shows that there a important cultural rules in play which affect how emotions are displayed, situations in which emotions are shown, and how emotions are experienced (Ekman & Friesen, 1969; Izard, 1980), which are all learnt from individual cultures. This means, emotions differ in appropriateness per situation and desirability, depending on the culture, which in turn can affect how emotions are shown and perceived (Eid & Deiner, 2001).

Eid and Deiner (2001) looked at emotions across cultures but used two collectivistic cultures and two individualist cultures as the subjects. The two collectivistic cultures were: China and Taiwan, and the two individualistic cultures were: Australia and United States of America. Eid & Deiner (2001) found that Chinese people had the lowest frequency and intensity of emotions, both positive and negative, this draws on the Chinese culture of emotions being dangerous, irrelevant, or illness-causing (Eid & Deiner, 2001). Interestingly, although Taiwan is strongly linked to China in terms of philosophy, Taiwanese were shown to be more like Australian and American people with respect to freely displaying positive emotions, with the exception of pride. Pride was viewed in the same way Chinese culture views emotion, that is, that it is not shown.

Influential theories[edit | edit source]

Facial action coding system (FACS)[edit | edit source]

In 1978, Ekman and Friesssen formed the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). they identified that facial muscles performed specific actions, these are called Action Units (AUs). The FACS is conducted from an automate computer. so that it is independent of interpretation. the computer can analyse and interpret a persons facial muscles (Ekman & Friessen, 1978). though a test could be conducted by a person rather than a computer, the test would be more likely to be free from interpretation as aforementioned, and it is likely to be quicker using the developed FACS software (Con, ZIochower, Lien, & Kanade, 1999).

Facial feedback hypothesis (FFH)[edit | edit source]

Facial Feedback Hypothesis postulates that an emotion stems from:

  • Movements of the muscles in the face.
  • Changes of the facial temperature.
  • Glandular activity in the skin of the face.

This meaning that emotion is essentially muscle and glandular responses in the face. There is a sequence to emotion activation according to Facial Feedback Hypothesis. The subcortal brain (limbic system) uses genetically wired emotion-specific programs, that when activated, send impulses to the basal ganglia and facial nerves to generate a facial expression. Then, within microseconds of the facial expression being displayed the brain interprets the proprioceptive stimulation (muscle relaxtion/ contraction, blood flow, change of skin temperature, glandular secretions), which in urn is made sense of by the frontal lobe, which becomes aware of the emotional state on a conscious level. In a very brief period of time, the whole body becomes aware of the emotion and joins the facial feedback, meaning glandular hormonal, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems become aroused and maintain the emotional state for the length of time required (Reeve, 2009). All this basically means is that facial feedback does one job: Emotional activation (Izard, 1989, 1994).

According to Facial Feedback Hypothesis, feedback from facial behaviour, when converted to consciousness gives us the experience of an emotion (Reeve, 2009), so when your facial musculature is manipulated into a pattern that corresponds with a certain display of emotion, you will activate that experience for your body.

Try this!
  • Raise your eyebrows and pull them together
  • Raise your upper eyelids
  • stretch your lips horizontally, back towards your ears

This is supposedly the face of fear! are you feeling fearful? (Ekman, Levenson, & Friesen, 1983)

Social identity theory[edit | edit source]

social identity theory, also known as "Cross race effect" offers the explanation that as group members we identify with an in-group norm, the norm gives similarities between group members but accentuates the differences between that group and others (Tajfel & Turner, 1979 as cited in Vaughan & Hogg, 2010). In this sense Social identity theory can be used to explain why we may be less likely to recognise facial expressions of a person from another culture. We identify with our in-group norm and this accentuates what is different about a person from another culture. Carpenter (2000) offers the insight into this theory that people are more experienced at looking at members of our own culture, and that it is not that we cannot code the details of cross-race faces, it is that we don't.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 What are the six basic emotions coupled with facial expressions that are pan-culturaly recognised?

Fear, Anger, Disgust, Joy, Distress, Interest
Happiness, Sadness, Fear, Surprise, Anger, and Disgust
Happiness, Acceptance, Sadness, Fear,Anger, Surprise
Joy, Fear, Sandess, Disgust, Surprise, Anger

2 How many of the 80 muscles in the face are used for facial expression


3 We only smile when we are feeling happy


4 Typically,Utku Eskimo's strongly approve expressions of anger


5 Australia is a collectivistic culture


6 The Facial Action Coding System is conducted by. . .

By hand, by one researcher, so that the results are independent of interpretation
by automated computer, so that the results are independent of interpretation

7 Which of these does an emotion not stem from according to the Facial Feedback Hypothesis

Glandular activity in the skin of the face
Changes of the facial temperature
Movements of the muscles in the face
Changes in brain temperature

8 Social Identity Theory is also known as. . . .

perceptual differences effect
Cross race effect
Laws of Race specificity

Parting Words[edit | edit source]

Ekman (1984) - "There is a distinctive pan-cultural signal for each emotion.. . .If there is no distinctive universal facial expression associated with a given state, which functions as a signal, I propose that we not call that state an emotion."

Matsumo (1990) - "the universality of facial expressions of emotion is no longer debated in psychology" , "Rather, it is a "fact," the implications of which are debated."

Frijda (1986) - "Many facial expressions. . . occur throughout the world in every human race and culture. The expressions appear to represent, in every culture, the same emotions."

Brown (1991) - "The conclusion seems inescapable: There are universal emotional expressions." (Russell, 1994)

Thorough and extensive research shows that some emotions, at least the basic emotions, are recognised from facial expressions amongst different cultures.

This is something to keep in mind, next time you may find yourself in a situation where you can't quite say what you mean, it's not always words you need to express yourself.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

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Brown, D. E. (1991). Human universals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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Carpenter, S. (2000). Why do 'they all look alike'?. American Psychological Association, (31) 11, 44.

Chai, C., & Chai, W. (1967). Li Chi: Book of rites (Vol. 1, J. Legge, Trans.).New Hyde Park,England:University Books.

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