The six basic emotions are not culturally universal after all

In everyday life we use a plethora of words to describe various emotional states (and facial expressions) such as “upset”, “nervous”, “delighted”, “contended”, and “flabbergasted”. One of the most intriguing questions in emotion research has been which of (and to what extent) these emotions are culturally shaped, and to what extent facial expressions are universal across cultures, driven more by “nature” (i.e., human biology) than “nurture”. To solve this question, emotion researchers have looked for culturally shared basic emotions and it has become a more or less consensual view that there are six culturally universal basic emotions: happy, surprised, fearful, disgusted, angry, and sad.

In their highly interesting study, Jack et al. (in PNAS early view) report findings that challenge the view of culturally universal basic emotions. In their study, Western Caucasian and Eastern Asian subjects perceived 4800 computer-generated random facial expressions (that were based on simulated contractions of facial muscles, for a short video example of a random expression, see http://www.pnas.org/content/suppl/2012/04/12/1200155109.DCSupplemental/sm01.avi). The task of the  subjects was to categorize each of the facial expressions as either one of the six basic emotions or “don’t know” and, in case one of the six basic emotions was detected, also rate the intensity of the emotion. Based on these ratings facial action unit (muscle group) models for the six basic emotions (as well as for emotion intensity) were generated for the two cultures.

Comparison of the Western Caucasian and East Asian models revealed that the two groups perceived the six basic emotions differently and, furthermore, the intensity ratings of the emotional expressions also differed between the cultures. Specifically, Western Caucasian subjects appeared to perceive each of the six basic emotions based on a distinct set of facial muscles (as predicted based on previous studies). In contrast, in the East Asian subjects the emotion categories considerably overlapped; furthermore, for the perceived intensity of emotions, early movements of the eyes appeared to be important cues for Eastern Asian subjects in contrast to the Western Caucasian subjects. For video examples of Western Caucasian and East Asian facial expressions see http://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~rachael/4D_FoE_Culture/. These results constitute an important step forward in emotion research and potentially also help explain misunderstandings that may arise in social interactions between representatives from different cultural backgrounds.

Reference: Jack RE, Garrod OG, Yu H, Caldara R, Schyns PG. Facial expressions of emotion are not culturally universal. Proc Natl Acade Sci USA (2012). http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1200155109

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