We’re More Alike Than We Are Different, at Least in Facial Expressions
Humans around the globe use their 40-plus facial muscles to express common emotions with the same basic smiles, scowls and other familiar looks, according to new research published in the journal Nature. That doesn’t mean there are no differences, past studies indicate.
“This study reveals how remarkably similar people are in different corners of the world in how we express emotion in the face of the most meaningful contexts of our lives,” said study co-author Dacher Keltner, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
The researchers used machine-learning to analyze millions of facial expressions in videos from 144 countries across the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
“We found that rich nuances in facial behavior — including subtle expressions we associate with awe, pain, triumph, and 13 other feelings — are used in similar social situations around the world,” said study leader Alan Cowen, a researcher at UC Berkeley and Google. “This is the first worldwide analysis of how facial expressions are used in everyday life, and it shows us that universal human emotional expressions are a lot richer and more complex than many scientists previously assumed.”
Past research on the topic, which has flip-flopped over the decades, has also found global similarities in facial expressions, suggesting they are largely hard-wired. But there’s also evidence of culture-specific expressions generated by what people learn to mimic growing up, and which would be unfamiliar to outsiders.
Different cultures can also drive different perceptions of expressions. One small study found, for example, that Chinese people rely more on decoding the look in someone’s eyes, whereas Western Caucasians pay more attention to the eyebrows and mouth.
Another study found that an isolated, indigenous society in Papua New Guinea sees anger in a look that Westerners typically interpret as fear.
The science of facial expressions is, we could say, evolving. :)