Facial Expressions are Not Universal? The study and its flaws…

In a recent study entitled Cultural Confusions Show Facial Expressions Are Not Universal, Rachael Jack and her colleagues challenged 100s of studies documenting the universality of facial expressions.

The conclusions of this article are highly flawed for many reasons and below I outline a few of them.

1.    The fact of the matter is that a close inspection of the findings indicates that the raw data in the study supports the universal recognition of emotion (i.e., significantly higher rates of agreement than chance for each and every emotion, for both ethnic groups). That this is the empirical criterion that could and should be used as a basis to draw conclusions about universality has been discussed and debated years ago (Ekman, 1994; Ekman, O’Sullivan, & Matsumoto, 1991a, 1991b).

2.    The cultural difference is in absolute levels of agreement rates are not a novel finding. Indeed, I have published exactly the same findings 20 years ago and since (Biehl et al., 1997; Matsumoto, 1989, 1992; Matsumoto & Ekman, 1989).

3.    As argued then, cultural differences in absolute agreement rates cannot and do not argue against universality. Universality in expression recognition is demonstrated by the fact that observers in all cultures studied agreed on what emotion is portrayed at above chance levels. This is exactly what they found, replicating the same findings for years. Cultural differences in the absolute levels of that agreement can occur for many reasons, including cultural rules about how to decode universal facial expressions. And it has been well known in the field for years that universality and culture-specific in emotion recognition coexist (Mesquita & Frijda, 1992). Arguing for their mutual exclusivity is a strategy long since abandoned by those who know the literature well.

4.    Moreover, the confusions these authors report – that disgust was confused with anger, and fear with surprise – are confusions that occur all around the world. They are not specific to East Asian cultures, and are a published finding from over 20 years ago (Ekman et al., 1987; Matsumoto & Ekman, 1989). That they occur in all judge cultures tested to date says something more about those emotions than they do about cultural differences.

5.    A close reading of the authors’ own findings indicates that their findings concerning the eye tracking do not justify their conclusions. They reported a significant culture by face region interaction on the eye data, but an absence of a significant culture by face region by emotion interaction. That means that the eye tracking differences between the two cultures were not specific to emotion. If that’s the case, the eye tracking differences could not possibly account for the judgment differences on two emotions only, because the eye tracking differences that occurred did so for all emotions. This is a basic flaw in their interpretation of possible mediating variables (Baron & Kenny, 1986).

6.    Moreover, the East Asian – US American differences in scanning procedures of scenes, objects, and faces is a well established finding for years and is not novel. The differences in eye contact show a typical Asian response, that is, focusing in the eyes/nose bridge area rather than the whole face. The person identification literature has shown for years that Caucasians differ from African Americans and Asian Americans in terms of how much time they spend looking at different parts of the face to see if they recognize someone (Caucasians more of the face including hairline and hair; Africans and Asians in that eyes-nose bridge area). Thus what the authors report in this article is not specific to viewing facial expressions of emotion (and as mentioned above, cannot thus explain emotion specific differences in judgments).

7.    The sample size for the East Asian sample was 13 (12 Chinese, 1 Japanese). Such a small number could not possibly tell us anything vis-à-vis the overwhelming evidence for universality in the production of facial expressions of emotion, including over 74 studies published in peer reviewed journals conducted by multiple investigators in multiple countries (Matsumoto, Keltner, Shiota, Frank, & O’Sullivan, 2008); studies of congenitally blind individuals (Matsumoto & Willingham, 2009; Peleg et al., 2006); studies demonstrating linkage between facial expressions of emotion and physiological responses across cultures (Ekman, Levenson, & Friesen, 1983; Levenson, Ekman, & Friesen, 1990; Levenson, Ekman, Heider, & Friesen, 1992); and studies of nonhuman primates (Bard, 2003; de Waal, 2003). There is also well over 100 studies documenting the universality in recognition of facial expressions (Elfenbein & Ambady, 2002; Matsumoto, 2001).

8.    Finally, the East Asian subjects in their study were actually immigrants in the United Kingdom, and it is not known what kind of self-selection, language proficiency, or acculturation biases may have been exerted in the data.

There is nothing wrong with the data presented in the article in question, but the conclusions drawn from the data are entirely incorrect and not empirically justified. In my opinion, the conclusions border on sensationalism in relation to a very modest study.

I was aided in the preparation of this commentary by my colleagues Dr. Mark Frank and Dr. Jeff LeRoux

References Cited

Bard, K. A. (2003). Development of emotional expressions in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). In P. Ekman, J. Campos, R. J. Davidson & F. B. M. De Waal (Eds.), Emotions inside out: 130 years after Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and  Animals (Vol. 1000, pp. 88-90). New York: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Baron, R. M., & Kenny, D. A. (1986). The moderator-mediator variable distinction in social psychological research: Conceptual, strategic, and statistical considerations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(6), 1173-1882.
Biehl, M., Matsumoto, D., Ekman, P., Hearn, V., Heider, K., Kudoh, T., et al. (1997). Matsumoto and Ekman’s Japanese and Caucasian Facial Expressions of Emotion (JACFEE): Reliability Data and Cross-National Differences. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 21, 3-21.

de Waal, F. B. M. (2003). Darwin’s legacy and the study of primate visual communication. In P. Ekman, J. Campos, R. J. Davidson & F. B. M. De Waal (Eds.), Emotions inside out: 130 years after Darwin’s The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (pp. 7-31). New York: New York Academy of Sciences.

Ekman, P. (1994). Strong evidence for universals in facial expressions: A reply to Russell’s mistaken critique. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 268-287.

Ekman, P., Friesen, W. V., O’Sullivan, M., Chan, A., Diacoyanni-Tarlatzis, I., Heider, K., et al. (1987). Universals and cultural differences in the judgments of facial expressions of emotion. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 53(4), 712-717.

Ekman, P., Levenson, R. W., & Friesen, W. V. (1983). Autonomic nervous system activity distinguishes among emotions. Science, 221(4616), 1208-1210.

Ekman, P., O’Sullivan, M., & Matsumoto, D. (1991a). Confusions about context in the judgment of facial expression: A reply to “The contempt expression and the relativity thesis.”. Motivation & Emotion, 15(2), 169-176.

Ekman, P., O’Sullivan, M., & Matsumoto, D. (1991b). Contradictions in the study of contempt: What’s it all about? Reply to Russell. Motivation & Emotion, 15(4), 293-296.

Elfenbein, H. A., & Ambady, N. (2002). On the universality and cultural specificity of emotion recognition: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 128(2), 205-235.

Levenson, R. W., Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1990). Voluntary facial action generates emotion-specific autonomic nervous system activity. Psychophysiology, 27(4), 363-384.

Levenson, R. W., Ekman, P., Heider, K., & Friesen, W. V. (1992). Emotion and autonomic nervous system activity in the Minangkabau of West Sumatra. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 62(6), 972-988.

Matsumoto, D. (1989). Cultural influences on the perception of emotion. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 20(1), 92-105.

Matsumoto, D. (1992). American-Japanese cultural differences in the recognition of universal facial expressions. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 23(1), 72-84.

Matsumoto, D. (2001). Culture and Emotion. In D. Matsumoto (Ed.), The Handbook of Culture and Psychology (pp. 171-194). New York: Oxford University Press.

Matsumoto, D., & Ekman, P. (1989). American-Japanese cultural differences in intensity ratings of facial expressions of emotion. Motivation & Emotion, 13(2), 143-157.

Matsumoto, D., Keltner, D., Shiota, M. N., Frank, M. G., & O’Sullivan, M. (2008). What’s in a face? Facial expressions as signals of discrete emotions. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland & L. Feldman Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (pp. 211-234). New York: Guilford Press.

Matsumoto, D., & Willingham, B. (2009). Spontaneous Facial Expressions of Emotion of Congenitally and Non-Congenitally Blind Individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(1), 1-10.

Mesquita, B., & Frijda, N. H. (1992). Cultural variations in emotions: A review. Psychological Bulletin, 112, 197-204.
Peleg, G., Katzir, G., Peleg, O., Kamara, M., Brodsky, L., Hel-Or, H., et al. (2006). Heriditary family signature of facial expression. Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences, 103(43), 15921-15926.

One response to “Facial Expressions are Not Universal? The study and its flaws…”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve done work on “pain” expression; a “dirty” sort of emotion, which nevertheless, was shown to appear universal across sex and three ethnicities. I called the the Primal Face of Pain (PFP), I did this work with 2-3 day old infants:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18692963

    Nevertheless, culture does indeed modify that inborn expression and the question is not if universal expressions exist; rather, the interesting questions have to do with how culture (training?) affect hardwire processes. That is, we (consciousness) can learn to affect unconscious, hardwired behavior.

    Martin.

    Martin.g

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