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Are Facial Expressions Universal?

December 14th, 2015 · No Comments · Uncategorized

There is a massive debate throughout psychology and different fields of science about whether or not facial expressions have remained universal, or they have evolved to become culturally driven. Different studies have proved different ideas and theories in this area, however everyone has their own interpretation of these studies: a prime example of this is Charles Darwin’s work on facial expressions of emotion. Some believe he didn’t take into account different details and facial expressions are culturally specific, and others believe there are still the six universal facial expressions- happiness, surprise, anger, fear, disgust, and sadness, and all of these are displayed in different societies around the world. Specifically at Marymount University, 10 % of students are from foreign countries, so there is a need to know whether facial expressions are cultural or universal. Humans still share the same basic facial expressions, however, this has evolved to become culturally driven.

One study called “Facial Expressions of Emotion are not Culturally Universal”, led by Rachel E. Jack, discusses how facial expressions have become culturally specific. “…These once biologically hardwired and universal signals have been molded by the diverse social ideologies and practices of the cultural groups who use them for social communication” (Jack, 4). This study adamantly explains that through their results, facial expressions are no longer universal. In her study, she used a facial expression generator to create six models of these facial expressions with Western Caucasian and Eastern Asian cultures. Since humans have evolved from being animal-like, Rachel E. Jack claims that each culture has changed and created a variation of the specific expression, even for the expressions that many others believe are universal. In the discussion of this particular study, it showed that each of the two cultures had an easier time of understanding their own culture’s expression of emotion, rather than the other culture. And another study called “Cultural Differences in Recognition of Subdued Facial Expressions of Emotion”, led by Fang Zhang, discussed similar results. “The present findings have important implications for cross-cultural communication of emotions, suggesting that cultures differ in how sensitive people are to subtle emotional signals” (Zhang, 7). In her study, she discussed how each of the two cultures she used were more sensitive to their own society’s expression, both at moderate and low intensity, and they had more of a degree of difficulty interpreting facial expressions from the other culture. These two studies bring forward the results about how facial expressions have changed, as humans have changed, to become culturally specific rater than universal.

However, this idea is not so cut and dry. A prime example of how facial expressions have remained universal and in our biological makeup are newborn babies. Babies that are days to a month old make similar facial expressions when they are crying or disgusted; and these infants are so young they couldn’t have influence from the specific culture they are born into. This is evidence that evolution has not changed our facial expressions, but through time and how cultures have grown, each has developed their own system for non-verbal communication through expressions of emotion. There is a new theory that Ana Mrovlje mentions that was introduced by Paul Ekman called the “neuro-cultural theory”, which balances both sides to the debate. The “neuro” refers to the biological side of humans, or the relationship between particular emotions and specific facial muscle patterns. The “cultural” part of the theory refers to the rules about controlling facial expressions, and the consequences when these rules are not followed in different societies. This gives the idea that since we are all still human, we have the same biological makeup with how we express our emotions. But it is through cultural norms and what is acceptable in each society that forms an individual’s idea of facial expressions.

Humans still share the same universal facial expressions, however, this has evolved to become culturally driven. Each culture has different rules as to what can be expressed or not, and each have their own consequences if these are not followed. A scowl can mean something very different in China than in England in a specific situation, since both countries have their own rules about proper behavior and expression of emotion. There are still the six basic facial expressions in all humans, however our expressions of emotion have also evolved with us to become culturally driven, rather than universal and understood by everyone. Each facial expression that is displayed by someone all depends on the society the person is raised in, and what is culturally acceptable or not. And since so many students that attend Marymount are from foreign countries, it is important to understand cultural differences between our facial expressions.

 

 

 

Work Cited:

Jack, Rachel E. “Facial Expressions of Emotion Are Not Culturally Universal.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 19 Mar. 2012. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

Mrovlje, Ana. “Facial Expressions as Reflection of Inner Emotional State.” KAIROS, 1 Aug. 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.

Zhang, Fang. “Cultural Differences in Recognition of Subdued Facial Expressions of E.” Motions. Springer, 30 Nov. 2014. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

 

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