Anyone who has travelled the world, has probably experienced problems with ‘reading people’s faces’. While it is usually easy to estimate how another person feels when you’re in your own environment, this turns out to be quite hard when you are in a different culture. This may seem strange at first; since emotions seem such primary cognitive states, it is an intuitive idea that emotions and their expressions are some sort of primary, universal language. This has also been a basic premise in psychological science for decades: due to their similar biological origin, happiness, fear, disgust, surprise, anger or sadness have long been seen as the six universal ‘primary emotions’.
Recent research in psychology now has made clear that this is not the case and that internal representations of emotions are substantially influenced by cultural backgrounds. R.E. Jack et al. tested the internal representations of emotional facial expressions within two culturally different groups, one East Asian and the other Western Caucasian. They asked the participants to judge computer-animated facial expressions on whether these represented a certain emotional expression. It turned out that the Western Caucasian subjects indeed recognized the six ‘primary emotions’ as pronouncedly different, but that the East Asian judgements showed less distinction. Rather, the East Asian subjects judged the mainly negative facial expressions by the intensity of their gaze and not by using other facial muscles.
There might still be some truth to the idea that indeed emotions are primary facial expressions, but at least it is now clear that, as the rest of our cognitive capacities, these expressions have evaluated and have been adapted to cultural differences. Apparently, our biological hardware isn’t as fixed as one might think, after all.
Jack, Rachael E.; Caldara, Roberto; Schyns, Philippe G. “Internal representations reveal cultural diversity in expectations of facial expressions of emotion.” In: Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol. 141 (1), Feb 2012, 19-25. doi: 10.1037/a0023463