Article image

Emotional facial expressions are not universally understood

Imagine a world where happiness in Chinese doesn’t quite translate to happiness in English – not just in words, but in the very way our brains process it. A recent study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suggests that’s the reality.

By analyzing reactions to emotional facial expressions, the experts have cracked open a new understanding of how we experience the world. Forget the “universality of emotions” we’ve always assumed. This research reveals that our cultural background and the language we use shape how we perceive emotions like anger and disgust.

Emotional responses across cultures

The researchers wanted to understand how culture and language affect the interpretation of emotional facial expressions. They studied two groups: Chinese and White Americans. Before seeing pictures of faces showing anger and disgust, people read either words related to those emotions (“anger,” “disgust”) or neutral words.

While the participants looked at the faces, the researchers monitored which parts of their brains worked together using a brain scanner (fMRI). The goal was to see if the words they read changed how their brains reacted to the faces, and if this differed between the two groups.

Varying response to disgust

When Chinese participants saw “disgust,” a part of their brain responsible for understanding words (inferior frontal gyrus) became less connected to other parts involved in seeing, understanding meaning, and social interactions. This suggests that their brain was not focused on developing a reaction. 

“When primed with the word ‘disgust’ before viewing the corresponding facial expression, immigrants from mainland China showed decreased functional connectivity in brain regions related to semantic processing, visual perception, and social cognition,” said study first author Dr. Joseph Leshin. Interestingly, this effect was not seen in White American participants. Their brains worked hard to develop an instant response.

No response for anger

When shown the pictures of “anger,” both Chinese and White American participants didn’t show the same decrease in brain connections as with “disgust.” This suggests “anger” triggers emotional processing differently than “disgust.”

The different brain responses to “anger” and “disgust” hint at distinct ways these emotions are handled in the brain, likely due to their different meanings across cultures. 

While “disgust” seemed to disrupt information processing in Chinese participants, “anger” didn’t have the same effect. Hence, “anger” might be more universally recognized and processed across cultures, or its meaning might not vary as much between Chinese and American cultures as “disgust” does.

Cultural influence 

Let’s explore how our cultural background influences how we experience and express emotions with an example. 

Imagine two friends, Lee from China and Alex from the United States. When Lee encounters something disgusting, like spoiled food, his reaction might be influenced by Chinese cultural norms. These norms may emphasize maintaining harmony or avoiding strong emotional displays. 

The study suggests that priming Lee with “disgust” could subtly alter his reaction, perhaps making him focus more on internally recognizing the emotion rather than expressing it vividly. This doesn’t mean he feels less disgusted, but he might not express it openly.

For Alex, seeing spoiled food might trigger a more direct and outward expression of disgust. This reflects a different cultural norm where expressing emotions like disgust might be more accepted or expected. However, when faced with something angering, like being cut off in traffic, they might show similar reactions.

Universal response to anger

The study suggests that priming with “anger” doesn’t significantly change how people from either culture process or express this emotion. This could mean that expressing anger has a more universal pattern across these cultures, or at least the differences are not as pronounced as with disgust.

From an evolutionary perspective, anger served as a powerful tool for survival. It helped signal displeasure or threat, deterring aggression and promoting cooperation within groups. This is why we have some universally recognized aspects of anger, like facial expression. 

For example, when someone sees a furrowed brow, clenched fists, or a raised voice (common anger expressions), it’s a clear signal of potential danger. This instinctive recognition of anger helps people avoid conflict and aggression, promoting peaceful coexistence. We are biologically wired to understand these signals.

Disgust is not common worldwide

The way people experience and understand disgust isn’t the same worldwide. This difference can be traced back to several factors, including language, cultural norms, and even how our brains process information.

For example, studies show that there isn’t a direct equivalent for the English word “disgust” in traditional Chinese philosophies like Daoism, Buddhism, or Confucianism. This suggests that historically, disgust was not an important concept in these cultures compared to Western ones.

Social integration

In our increasingly interconnected world, understanding how cultural nuances affect how we perceive emotional facial expressions is crucial for social integration. This knowledge can help bridge cultural divides, promoting harmony and mutual respect among people from all over the globe.

​​“Our findings contribute to growing evidence that emotional facial expressions are not universally produced and understood,” said study co-author Dr Kristen Lindquist, a neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Knowing how culture and language affect our interpretation of emotions can make communication between different cultures much better. By accepting these differences (like gestures or facial expressions having different meanings), we can interact more effectively and with more empathy. This is especially important in international business, diplomacy, and teamwork, where misunderstandings can happen easily.

Broader implications

The study reminds us that therapy and mental health care need to be culturally sensitive. By understanding how people from different cultures perceive emotions, therapists can diagnose and treat patients more effectively and personally.

Moreover, as we build machines that can understand human emotions, considering cultural and language differences becomes crucial. This study can help develop better AI systems that recognize emotional facial expressions accurately across cultures, making them useful in various settings, from customer service chatbots to mental health apps.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day