Universal Facial Expressions: smile
Credit: Zitona qatar via Wikimedia Commons

Universal facial expressions have been defined over the years by biologists and psychologists, but it seems there are slight differences in the extent to which Western and Eastern populations focus on particular areas of the face. This can make the interpretation of the expression more difficult in some cases, leading to confusion in the body message. Even emoticons are tweaked to satisfy the depth of the feelings expressed. To which extent does this happen?

Does a face of anger evoke the same feeling to a person of Eastern origin or to a person of Western origin? According to one of the most accepted hypotheses in biology and social sciences, it should. However, it appears that the onset and severity of the six basic emotions (happiness, surprise, disgust, anger, fear and sadness) would not be as universal as hitherto believed. The results of a study conducted in the UK[4] show that facial expression could be perceived differently depending on the cultural background of the person.

The study concluded that the expression of an emotion in a particular way may not be an innate but rather cultural characteristic. In other words, if you open wide your eyes and mouth in a country on the other side of the world, the inhabitants of that place may not know how to identify the facial expression of surprise. These findings contradict the accepted hypotheses in biology and social sciences since Darwin wrote 'The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals', in 1872 (and later on proved by several experiments by the American psychologist Paul Ekman). He stated that the facial expressions of the six basic emotions (happiness, surprise, disgust, anger, fear and sadness) are universal and innate.

In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers of the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology, in the University of Glasgow (United Kingdom), indicate that communication of emotions has evolved and improved in the context of social interaction. The research involved participant of both Western and Eastern origins. The first group distinguished the six basic emotions, while the second confused some.

The Orientals particularly messed up surprise, fear, disgust and anger. The explanation could be that these tend to focus on the eye expression to recognize the degree of happiness, fear, disgust and anger in a person. Westerners, however, base the magnitude of the inferred emotion on other facial muscles, especially those associated with expressions of the mouth.

The eyes and mouth, at the center of all emotions

This is the conclusion of the same scientists a few years ago, which was published at that time in the journal “Current Biology”[5]. As a result, the Japanese may fall into more misunderstandings, since when faced to a minimally ambiguous expression they are often confused most of the time. To verify this hypothesis, in a recent study, the same researchers looked at a contemporary element: emoticons, a sequence of characters that, in principle, represent a human face and are used to express emotions in e-mail, forums, SMS and chats.

The authors recalled that this cultural difference in the way of interpreting Western and Asian faces is also seen in the emoticons: Asians offer much more marked features in the top of the face, especially the eyes, while Westerners underline the bottom, particularly the mouth.

Emotions: cultural or innate?

The range of emotions is not an exact science. From Darwin[2][2], the study of universal expressions has concerned the scientific community, most notably Paul Ekman[1][1], a psychologist who pioneered the study of emotions and their relation to facial expression, and Ray Birdwhistell[3], an anthropologist founder of the kinesics or interpretation of body movements. Ekman believes that there are indeed universal gestures: people around the world laugh when they are happy, and frown when they are angry or pretend to be. The role of culture is to conceal, exaggerate, hide or suppress them entirely. Birdwhistell, however, argues that despite some anatomical expressions are similar in all people, the meaning differs according to the culture to which they belong.

Like Ekman, most scientists believe that at least some expressions themselves are universal. The evidence cited by those who argue this fact is the study of children that were born blind. It was found that all newborns express a kind of smile when they are as young as five weeks old, even if they are blind. Congenitally blind children also laugh, cry, frown and adopt typical expressions of anger, fear or sadness.

Universal emotions and facial expressions

Paul Ekman defined six universal gestures, which were later expanded to 17. These were the first:

Joy: it is produced by the contraction of the muscle from the cheekbone to the upper lip and around the eye orbicular. The cheeks are raised.

Sadness: occurs when the upper eyelids fall and the eyebrows take an upwards angle. The wrinkled brow and lips stretch horizontally.

Anger: eyes stare, eyebrows come together and down and teeth clench.

Surprise: the upper eyelids go up, but the lower are not tense. The jaw usually drops.

Disgust: slight muscle contraction, frowning the nose and narrowing the eyes. The nose gesture is simultaneous to a lifting of the upper lip.

Fear: follows surprise. Upper eyelids are lifted to the maximum, and the lower ones become under tension. The raised eyebrows come together. The lips become longer at the back.

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Penguin Classics)
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The original book by Charles Darwin.
Emotions Revealed, Second Edition: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life
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(price as of Jul 5, 2016)
A self-development book to apply Ekman's principles.
Facial Expressions: A Visual Reference for Artists
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(price as of Jul 5, 2016)
Try to identify as many different types of emotions as possible!