Thursday, August 13, 2009

Eastern vs. Western emoticons

Asian Smiley Emoticons Plush - Set Of 6

In a study of cultural differences in the recognition of facial expressions...

...eye movements of 13 Western Caucasian and 13 East Asian people [were recorded] while they observed pictures of expressive faces and put them into categories: happy, sad, surprised, fearful, disgusted, angry, or neutral. The faces were standardized according to the so-called Facial Action Coding System (FACS) such that each expression displayed a specific combination of facial muscles typically associated with each feeling of emotion. They then compared how accurately participants read those facial expressions using their particular eye movement strategies.

It turned out that Easterners focused much greater attention on the eyes and made significantly more errors than Westerners did. The cultural specificity in eye movements that they show is probably a reflection of cultural specificity in facial expressions, [Rachael E.] Jack said. Their data suggest that while Westerners use the whole face to convey emotion, Easterners use the eyes more and mouth less.

A survey of Eastern versus Western emoticons certainly supports that idea.

"Emoticons are used to convey different emotions in cyberspace as they are the iconic representation of facial expressions," Jack said. "Interestingly, there are clear cultural differences in the formations of these icons." Western emoticons primarily use the mouth to convey emotional states, e.g. : ) for happy and : ( for sad, she noted, whereas Eastern emoticons use the eyes, e.g. ^.^ for happy and ;_; for sad.

In addition to having their eye movements monitored, the participants in the study of Jack et al. (2009) classified same-race and other-race faces as conveying one of these emotions: happiness, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, sadness, or no emotion (neutral). The results suggested that facial expressions are not as universal as Paul Ekman made them out to be:
East Asian observers made significantly more errors when categorizing "disgust"’ (p less than 0.05) and "fear" (p less than 0.001) than Western Caucasian (WC) observers did. In contrast, WC observers categorized all facial expressions with comparably high accuracy.
In East Asian participants disgust was most often confused with anger, and fear was mistaken for surprise -- which happened because of a greater focus on the eyes, as shown in the figure below. Eye fixations on the mouth (in red) were less intense for the East Asians compared to the Western Caucasians, which resulted in less accurate discrimination of surprise vs. fear and disgust vs. anger (shown in the red bars in the bottom two panels).

Adapted from Fig 1B (Jack et al.) - Color-coded distributions presented on grayscale sample stimuli show the relative distributions of fixations across face regions. Higher color saturation indicates higher fixation density, shown relative to all conditions. Note that the red ‘‘mouth’’ fixations for EA observers are less intense as compared to WC observers across conditions. Color-coded bars to the left of each face represent the mean categorization accuracy for that condition, with red indicating a significant difference in categorization errors between groups. SR = same race, OR = other race.

But are Shrink Rap Roy's Psych Notes for Smilies universal across Eastern and Western psychiatrists? That remains an open question...
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Jack RE, Blais C, Scheepers C, Schyns PG, Caldara R (2009). Cultural Confusions Show that Facial Expressions Are Not Universal Current Biology. DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2009.07.051

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At August 14, 2009 6:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, the Eastern ones seem to be becoming more popular, at least in the online places I hang out. I see quite a bit of ^.^, <.<, and o.O.

At August 14, 2009 9:04 PM, Blogger Paper Hand said...

Question: Were the faces shown to the test subjects a mixture of Eastern and Western subjects, or were they all Western individuals? If the latter, could that not be why there were more frequent errors? It seems reasonable that if, as argued, facial expressions are not so universal, that one would make more errors in faces from another culture.

At August 15, 2009 1:01 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Paper - All participants were shown both Asian and Caucasian faces, but that's a good point. There generally is a same-race advantage, although that wasn't reported here. Both groups of subjects were selected for having minimal prior experience of other-race faces. However, the authors seem to have treated Chinese and Japanese faces as interchangeable: 12 out of 13 subjects were Chinese, but the images were of Japanese faces.

At August 17, 2009 4:03 AM, Anonymous egogramme said...

"Easterners focused much greater attention on the eyes". So I guess they are goot at spot a fake smile as the few key signs that distinguish fake smiles from genuine ones are around the eyes.

For more info...
Take the test "Spot the Fake Smile - BBC":
Jump to the results "Spot the Fake Smile" :

At August 17, 2009 4:15 AM, Anonymous egogramme said...

I had about the same remark as Paper. I am curious about the way of these photographs have been taken: these ones in particuliar and the pictures used in studies in general.

Are they in a real situation of anger/disgust/surprise/anger ? Or are they only mimicking these situations ?

Are they alone in front of a screen/in the presence of a Eastern researcher/in the presence of Western researcher ?

Are they told to be expressive ?

At August 19, 2009 4:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The article is very interesting, but I was a bit turned off by the author's (unwarranted) criticism of Ekman. I don't see how this study disproves or even raises any questions about the validity of Ekman's theories. The "so-called" so-called FACS and Ekman's theories on the universality of facial expressions never claim a universality in people's ability to read these expressions.

Quite the contrary: Ekman often talks about people's limited ability to read subtle facial expressions without proper training, the confusion between disgust and surprise, and yes: cultural differences.

In fact, in one of his books, he does talk about Asian culture, and his findings that Japanese people are more prone to conceal certain emotions when in public. Could this account for this study's findings? -- the muscles of the mouth are easier to control than those of the eyes; in a culture where people are more likely to conceal their emotions, the mouth can be a rather unreliable source of information.

So it's an interesting study, but contrary to what the author seems to think, it actually further supports many of Ekman's own findings, rather than raise any doubts over their validity.


At August 21, 2009 2:21 PM, Anonymous egogramme said...

By the way, I have discovered a very good TV serie on this theme: "Lie To Me"

And an intriguing article on "Hereditary family signature of facial expression" based on an observation of 21 "blind from birth" volunteers and their family. or

(Thank you for your blog. :o))

At August 26, 2009 7:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me be blunt. First, "Lie To Me" is not a good program. It's a horrible and misleading program. Second, in my opinion, Ekman has been overselling his methods lately, like many other senior CA professors.


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