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Why we can't take expressions at face value

No wonder communications between various cultures can sometimes get lost in translation. A new study suggests that people from different parts of the world don't necessarily use the same facial expressions to show their emotions.

The findings overturn a long-held assumption that facial expressions are universal and can be used reliably to convey emotions in cross-cultural situations.

Several decades ago, U.S. sociologists went so far as to develop a series of facial images that are suppose to represent seven basic human emotions: happy, sad, surprised, fearful, disgusted, angry and neutral. But some researchers have questioned the accuracy of the Facial Action Coding System. And now the new study, by researchers at the University of Glasgow, indicates these mug shots aren't so universal after all.

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For the study, the Scottish researchers recruited 13 Western Caucasians (mainly Europeans) and 13 East Asians (mostly Chinese students recently arrived in Britain).

The volunteers were shown the standardized facial images and asked to identify the emotions being expressed. (The images included both Caucasians and Asian faces in identical poses.) At the same time, the researchers electronically monitored the eye movements of the volunteers.

According to the results, published in the journal Current Biology, the Asian participants had a harder time than Caucasians telling the difference between a face meant to look fearful compared with one showing surprise, and a face supposedly expressing disgust compared with one displaying anger.

"This really illustrates that facial expression signals must be different across cultures," said Rachael Jack, who led the research effort as part of her PhD thesis. Otherwise, people from all backgrounds would be able to recognize the same facial expressions with equal ease.

The study also revealed that the volunteers focused on different parts of the face in their efforts to decipher the underlying emotions. "Westerners [Europeans]look at the eyes and the mouth in equal measure, whereas Easterners [Asians]favour the eyes and neglect the mouth. This means that Easterners have difficulty distinguishing facial expressions that look similar around the eye regions," Ms. Jack said.

For instance, in the faces representing fear and surprise, "both have big, wide open eyes, but the mouths are very different," she noted in a telephone interview. "It would be difficult to distinguish between the two … if you didn't look at the mouth."

So why would various cultures express emotions in different ways? Ms. Jack speculated that it may be considered impolite in some Asian cultures to display certain emotions in an overt manner. Instead, they may use subtle ways to telegraph their feelings. And, in particular, muscle movements around their eyes could hold clues to inner thoughts, instead of an over- expressive mouth movement. That may explain why the Asian participants fixated on the eyes, she said.

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The next project of the research team, working under the direction of psychologist Roberto Caldara, is to determine the actual facial expressions used by East Asians to convey various emotions.

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