Facial expressions are one of the most powerful languages, especially in terms of communicating emotion. Culture plays a large role in how people interpret facial expressions. Because of this, researcher Rachael E. Jack, PhD, of the University of Glasgow set out to document how different cultures interpret facial expressions. The study, which was also Jack’s thesis, was published in the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Journal of Experimental Psychology. Philippe Schyns, PhD, director of the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow, and Roberto Caldara, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland co-authored the study.
Before the study began, facial expressions were considered a “hard-wired human behavior trait,” suggesting that various cultures did not interpret facial expressions differently. However, Jack conducted his study to prove that facial expression interpretation is culturally relevant, using statistical documentation and computer-generated facial expressions.
Facial expressions are interpreted by our mind’s eye, through mental representation. Jack said that mental representations are shaped by our past experiences. Therefore, we perceive what we believe to be a happy or sad face based on our past experiences of facial expressions combined with verbal emotional outbursts.
Essentially, we are conditioned to associate certain facial expressions with emotions. This can even change the type of face we make for various emotions.
The study was conducted on 30 different people: 15 Chinese people and 15 Caucasian people. Each person viewed a computer-generated neutral face, which altered itself into different facial expressions. They were asked to record what they believed to be a happy, sad, disgusted, angry surprised and fearful face.
The study found that the Caucasians relied on the eyebrows and mouth when determining a facial expression, while the Chinese mostly relied on the eyes. From these results, researchers discovered that people can misinterpret facial expressions of other people with a different cultural background.
The study’s main purpose is to remind people that there needs to be understanding when communicating with people who have a different cultural background. Communication is more than words — it is body language, as well.
Jack said that he hopes this study will facilitate clearer channels of communication between diverse cultures.