Other research in recent times heralds more evidence that facial expression recognition is a learned skill, and not instinctual.
In another study that also had participants label a face as happy, angry or sad, researchers instead surveyed about 80 Japanese and American students, and included four people in the background of the picture.
Whereas 70 percent of the East Asians said their answer was influenced by the expressions of faces in the background crowd, approximately the same percentage of Westerners said they didn’t consider the group in their decision about the individual—a pattern that the head researcher conjectured could be connected to the Western emphasis of the individual, and the Eastern focus on the whole society as one.
“People raised in the North American tradition often find it easy to isolate a person from [their] surroundings,” says study lead Takahiko Masuda, a psychology professor at the University of Alberta. “East Asians seem to have a more holistic pattern of attention, perceiving people in terms of the relationships to others.”
The Japanese even have a common phrase for this type of perception: “kuuki wo yomu,” which translates into “reading the air.” In other words, you need to gauge how the full environment is influencing a particular situation before you draw a conclusion.
The perceived difference in facial expressions has even tapped into the wireless age, with another study led by Masuda that reveals emoticans used in emails, texting and chat also differ between Eastern and Western countries.
Japanese emoticans were found to convey happiness and sadness with the choice of characters for eyes, while Americans changed the direction of the mouth. For example, (^_^) and (;_;) indicate happiness and sadness for the Japanese, while :-) and :-( were used for the same emotions by Americans.
“We think it is quite interesting…that a culture that tends to mask its emotions, such as in Japan, would focus on a person’s eyes when determining emotion,” observes Masuda. “In the United States, where overt emotion is quite common, it makes sense to focus on the mouth, which is the most expressive feature on a person’s face.”
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