Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Universality of facial expressions of emotion challenged.

This  work by Jack et al (open access to full article) comes as quite a challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy on the universality of human facial movements associated with the six basic emotional states:
Since Darwin’s seminal works, the universality of facial expressions of emotion has remained one of the longest standing debates in the biological and social sciences. Briefly stated, the universality hypothesis claims that all humans communicate six basic internal emotional states (happy, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, and sad) using the same facial movements by virtue of their biological and evolutionary origins [Susskind JM, et al. (2008) Nat Neurosci 11:843–850]. Here, we refute this assumed universality. Using a unique computer graphics platform that combines generative grammars [Chomsky N (1965) MIT Press, Cambridge, MA] with visual perception, we accessed the mind’s eye of 30 Western and Eastern culture individuals and reconstructed their mental representations of the six basic facial expressions of emotion. Cross-cultural comparisons of the mental representations challenge universality on two separate counts. First, whereas Westerners represent each of the six basic emotions with a distinct set of facial movements common to the group, Easterners do not. Second, Easterners represent emotional intensity with distinctive dynamic eye activity. By refuting the long-standing universality hypothesis, our data highlight the powerful influence of culture on shaping basic behaviors once considered biologically hardwired. Consequently, our data open a unique nature–nurture debate across broad fields from evolutionary psychology and social neuroscience to social networking via digital avatars.


  1. It's a clever methodology, but I don't think results pose a radical challenge to orthodoxy: http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/facial-expressions-of-emotion-still.html

  2. Hey, thanks very much for passing on your link!

  3. It seems to me that this paper is doing things backwards.

    As I understand it, it's the *production* of facial expressions of emotion which is universal.

    As far as I know, it's accepted that the *perception* of facial expressions of emotion is very much cultural.

    All the authors of this paper have done is to show yet again that how we perceive facial expressions of emotion is affected by culture - which is something that's already known.

    Simply because different cultures perceive emotions differently, doesn't mean they're actually making different faces.

  4. I think it is interesting, but I don't think it refutes it. There has always been known cultural impacts, and the universality is ... well, sometimes I prefer calling it pancultural, Following the research there are clearly patterns of confusion, and patterns of cultural variation (very evident even in the 80's and 90's). Some researchers now talk more about a dialect theory (Elfenbein for example). I think there is much more to look at, of course (yay, job security) - but the title is quite polemic. Needs more to refute.