What's In a Smile?

How we decipher facial expressions differs across cultures.

| September 7th, 2011
What's In a Smile?

You may think of a smile as the universal signal of happiness, but a new study finds that the way different countries around the world perceive facial expressions isn’t so black and white.

In the study, 15 people of Chinese descent and 15 Caucasians living in Glasgow, London, were shown computer-generated faces that were altered to suggest expression. Participants were asked to label each face as happy, sad, surprised, fearful, disgusted or angry.

Surprisingly, the answers varied. While Chinese participants looked to the eyes to decipher expression, Western Caucasians focused on the eyebrows and mouth. Difference in interpretation was seen throughout the facial expressions, but the perception of fear and disgust especially differed between the two groups.

QUIZ: How Satisfied Are You With Your Face?

“We conducted this study to objectively examine cultural differences in facial expression signals, as a previous study of ours [Jack et al., 2009] showed that East Asian groups do not recognize facial expressions widely considered to be universal,” says lead researcher Rachael E. Jack, PhD, of the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow, UK.

Understanding how cultural groups perceive expressions differently could lead to more effective communication in an increasingly globalized world, adds Jack.

The findings fly in the face of the seminal thesis on the topic—Darwin’s "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals" (1898)— which argues that facial expressions are hard-wired as an evolutionary trait that is recognized by all species, regardless of culture or origin.

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