Study: Facial expressions (and emoticons) not universal

Scottish researchers have produced some eye-opening observations: Asians and Westerners don’t appear to interpret facial expressions the same. That challenges the notion that one face fits all.

On top of that, the BBC reports, emoticons apparently are not the emotional unix of the keyboard.

Researchers showed 13 Western Caucasians and 13 East Asians a set of standard images depicting the seven main facial expressions: happy, sad, neutral, angry, disgusted, fearful and surprised. The results:

• East Asian focused mostly on the eyes, but those from the West scanned the whole face.

• East Asian found it more difficult to distinguish some facial expressions.

• East Asians were more likely than Westerners to read the expression for “fear” as “surprise”, and “disgust” as “anger”.

• East Asians tended to focus on the eyes of the other person, while Western subjects took in the whole face, including the eyes and the mouth.

“Interestingly, although the eye region is ambiguous, subjects tended to bias their judgments toward less socially threatening emotions — surprise rather than fear, for example,” said co-author Dr. Rachael Jack from the University of Glasgow. “This perhaps highlights cultural differences when it comes to the social acceptability of emotions.”

A computer program did no better interpreting the eye data. It, too, could not distinguish between fear and surprise, and anger and disgust.

Look at the differences between Western emoticons (left) and their Eastern counterparts:

“Happy”   🙂    (^_^)

“Sad”    😦     (;_;)   or  (T_T)

“Surprise”   😮    (o.o)

The research is published in the journal Current Biology. More here (including a Chinese translation).

(Faces used in the research, via BBC.)

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