Facial Expressions, Lost in Translation

14 August 2009


It's not just the spoken language that can make communication in foreign countries difficult; it seems that easterners and westerners look for different facial cues as well.

It's often assumed that facial expressions form a sort of universal language, but now, Roberto Caldara at The University of Glasgow and colleagues report in the journal Current Biology report that this may not be the case, as eastern observers look for their cues in the eyes, not the full face.

An Expression of DisgustCaldara and colleagues recorded the eye movements of western Caucasian and East Asian volunteers as they performed an expression recognition task.  This consists of identifying the emotion in a number of pictures showing one of seven potential expressions (happiness, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, sadness and neutral).  Volunteers were shown images of both same-race and other-race people.

East Asian people seemed to make significantly more errors when categorising expressions of disgust and fear, for both the same- and other-race pictures.  Fear was consistently confused with surprise, while disgust was confused for anger.

To find out why this may be, they mapped the areas where each volunteer's gaze had been directed while evaluating each image.  By mapping the location, frequency and in what order each volunteer looked at what part of the image, they were able to not only find the 'hotspots' that received the most attention, but also spot patterns, such as looking at the right eye, then the left, then back to the right.

East Asian volunteers paid far more attention to the eyes than they did the mouth, especially in the expressions they most often misattributed.

The observers then went on to break each image down for analysis, in an attempt to objectively determine whether sampling the eyes and neglecting the mouth could lead to confusion.  Sampling the eye region, they developed a 'pattern of confusions' that showed surprise most likely to be mistaken for fear.  Sampling from the mouth region of the images gives a different 'pattern of confusion', where fear and surprise are clearly distinguishable.

So, by fixating their gaze more on the eye area, and neglecting the mouth, East Asian volunteers were more likely to succumb to this confusion, without the correcting effect of observing the mouth.

These results not only indicate that Western and Eastern observers genuinely perceive emotions differently, but also suggest that facial expressions, and especially those used in these sorts of studies, are not universal signals of human emotion.  The authors now hope to see how different aspects of culture and ideology affect the results, but meanwhile, we should just buy a good phrasebook if we don't want to get lost in translation!


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