Related podcast in Scientific American: Facial Expressions: East Doesn't Meet West
Current Biology, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.07.051
Cultural Confusions Show that Facial Expressions Are Not Universal
Rachael E. Jack
Central to all human interaction is the mutual understanding of emotions, achieved primarily by a set of biologically rooted social signals evolved for this purposefacial expressions of emotion. Although facial expressions are widely considered to be the universal language of emotion [1,2,3], some negative facial expressions consistently elicit lower recognition levels among Eastern compared to Western groups (see  for a meta-analysis and [5,6] for review). Here, focusing on the decoding of facial expression signals, we merge behavioral and computational analyses with novel spatiotemporal analyses of eye movements, showing that Eastern observers use a culture-specific decoding strategy that is inadequate to reliably distinguish universal facial expressions of fear and disgust. Rather than distributing their fixations evenly across the face as Westerners do, Eastern observers persistently fixate the eye region. Using a model information sampler, we demonstrate that by persistently fixating the eyes, Eastern observers sample ambiguous information, thus causing significant confusion. Our results question the universality of human facial expressions of emotion, highlighting their true complexity, with critical consequences for cross-cultural communication and globalization.