To spot a cross-cultural difference in the way people read facial expressions, look no further than the standard emoticons that pepper email in the west versus East Asia.
"Happy" in the west is :-) but in the east is (^_^), points out University of Glasgow psychologist Rachael Jack. "Sad" in the west is :-(. In the east sad is (;_;) or (T_T). "Surprise" in the west is :-o but in the east is (o.o).
What's this man saying with his eyes?
The eyes are key to the Japanese icons, Jack and other researchers have noted, while the western emoticons are all about the mouth.
In a little study published in the new issue of Current Biology, Jack and some colleagues found that the same East/West "cultural accent" shapes the way people read real faces, too.
The researchers showed photos of a range of facial expressions (using Caucasian and Asian models) to 26 British, Chinese, and Japanese college students, and asked them to name the emotion. The scientists then tracked the students' eye movements as they checked out the faces, to get an inkling of where the volunteers were looking for clues to mood.
The results: Westerners spent more time scanning the whole face, while the East Asian students focused primarily on the eyes.
The latter strategy had pitfalls, the researchers noticed. The Asian students were more likely to confuse "surprised" and "fearful" photos, and were also more likely to confuse "disgust" and "anger." The scientists say that's probably because those particular expressions are most broadly telegraphed by muscles around the mouth.
A Japanese researcher, Masaki Yuki, turned up similar findings a few years ago when showing American and Japanese volunteers photographic mash-ups of various facial expressions. Just as you might expect, Americans got tripped up when the photo of a "sad" face had a "happy mouth" photo-shopped in —- they classified the overall expression as "happy." Japanese judgments "were more strongly affected by cues in the eyes."
Yuki and colleagues think the Eastern focus on eyes makes sense culturally. They write,
Given that the eyes are more difficult to control than the mouth when people express emotions, we predicted that individuals in cultures where emotional subduction is the norm (such as Japan) would focus more strongly on the eyes than the mouth when interpreting others' emotions. By contrast, we predicted that people in cultures where overt emotional expression is the norm (such as the US) would tend to interpret emotions based on the position of the mouth, because it is the most expressive part of the face.
And that's precisely what they — and the researchers in Glasgow — found.
This story begs for an at-home test. Try this over dinnner tonight:
Cover your mouth and gaze at a pal. Then try on a few different expressions and make your beloved — who should read you best — or an acquaintance guess which emotion you're trying to convey.
Surprised by the results? We'd be interested to hear — or see.