New research suggests that not only are there four basic emotions expressed through the face, but that how these emotions are interpreted depends on cultural background. 

Research by scientists from the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow has challenged the traditional view that there are six basic emotions expressed and recognised across different cultures – happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust. Their work which has received much media attention, not only suggests there are four basic emotions, but that the way these facial signals are interpreted differs across cultures. This study by the Glasgow team, and the resulting Generative Facial Grammar, offers possibilities for tools to be developed to aid cross-cultural empathy and understanding. 

The doctoral work of lead researcher Dr. Rachael Jack was related to decoding facial expressions across cultures, and the reason she was studying this she explains ‘was because, in the literature and the wider public knowledge facial expressions were largely considered to be universal.’ While working on a different project looking at how people from the East and West look at different parts of the face during facial expression recognition, what they found was that while there are some common components across cultures, the six basic facial expressions of emotion are not recognised universally. 

‘Actually the culture of the observer changed the way the information was sampled from the face,’ explains Jack. ‘Easterners and Westerners looked at different parts of the face during facial expression recognition and that’s why I continued on looking at cultural differences in the decoding and representation of facial expressions.’ 


Using an approach called ‘reverse correlation’ which has been around since the 1970s, ‘we said we don’t know what a disgust face looks like in China, so the best way to go about that is to make all combinations of facial movements and show to Chinese observers and ask them to choose the ones they think are disgust faces.’ It’s an approach that’s not driven by a preconceived idea about facial expression. ‘The reason why the Generative Face Grammar was created in Glasgow was to be able to understand the facial expression signals of different cultures. Posed facial expressions may not be an accurate expression of their use in social interaction and spontaneous facial expressions rarely have an exact measure of the emotion a person is feeling.’ With the software they developed, generating different expressions responded to by observers, they discovered that in the early stages of signaling emotion, fear/surprise and anger/disgust were often confused. 

Jack explains that these facial expressions have developed both from biology and social evolution.  What has caught people’s interest is the cross-cultural aspect of the work. ‘This work leads to understanding which emotions do we share, appreciating our differences and what we share, highlighting our multicultural global experiences.’ It’s why people have been interested in using their data to inform new ways of social communication. ‘We can use it to understand how different cultures transmit signs of empathy using the face,’ says Jack. ‘And this sort of knowledge as well as the knowledge we have developed from facial expressions of emotion and social traits, can be used to inform new technologies designed to facilitate cross-cultural interactions,’ via Skype-type technology for example. ‘You can have a Skype-system where you might be interacting with someone in Japan and what the system would do is read your facial expressions online. It would then interpret your facial expressions based on knowledge of western facial expressions, then interpret that for the Japanese observer. So on their screen it would either give the emotion-label, or you can imagine they would have an avatar of the person’s face, and the facial expression would be translated into the Japanese facial expression which would be translated on the avatar.’