Study suggests that reactions and interpretations can vary from culture to culture.
It has been widely believed that facial expressions convey the same meaning everywhere in the world regardless of cultural context. For instance, people lift their cheek muscles and widen their lips when smiling and all of us naturally understand what it means.
But new research suggests that human facial expressions are not as universal as has been thought. Researchers have found that several facial expressions commonly understood in the West are perceived differently by natives living in Papua New Guinea. Their finding contradicts the common assumption that all basic human emotions are universally recognizable beyond geographic or cultural differences.
“Humans interpret others’ facial behavior, such as frowns and smiles, and guide their behavior accordingly, but whether such interpretations are pancultural or culturally specific is unknown.” Study reads
For the study, a combine team of researchers from U.S. and Spain travelled to the Trobriand Islands off Papua New Guinea’s east coast, where a community of indigenous Trobrianders live in isolation without interacting both mainland Papua New Guinea and the rest of the world. But instead of testing them right way, researches took their time and decided to understand both their culture and language. Then, they showed these native people the pictures of Westerners with different facial expressions and asked them what emotions are being conveyed.
Researchers found that Trobrianders recognized all of the expression the same way as westerners except the fear as they confused the photos showing wide-eyed people with mouth slightly open in wonder (or surprised) with threatening. In the west, this expression is generally associated with fear. The findings reflect that expressions could be interpreted differently in different parts of the world, challenging the theory that expressions are universally recognizable.
“Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea—adolescents interpreted a gasping face (seen by Western samples as conveying fear and submission) as conveying anger and threat. This finding is important not only in supporting behavioral ecology and the ethological approach to facial behavior, as well as challenging psychology’s approach of allegedly pancultural “basic emotions,” but also in applications such as emotional intelligence tests and border security.” Study concludes.