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Study: recognition of facial expressions not universal

Jan. 26, 2010
Courtesy University of Montreal
and World Science staff

Cau­casians and Asians don’t ex­am­ine faces in the same way, ac­cord­ing to new re­search.

Car­o­line Blais, a doc­tor­al stu­dent in psy­chol­o­gy at the Uni­vers­ity of Mon­tréal, has pub­lished two new stud­ies on the sub­ject in the re­search jour­nals Cur­rent Bi­ol­o­gy and PLoS One.

Pre­vi­ous stud­ies have shown that peo­ple col­lect in­forma­t­ion by mostly stu­dy­ing the eyes as well as the mouth of a face. “The prob­lem is that these stud­ies al­ways used Cau­ca­sian test sub­jects,” said Blais.

Blais said she had ques­tioned the uni­ver­sal­ity of fa­cial recog­ni­tions af­ter stud­ies showed that Asians study faces in an over­all fash­ion, while Cau­casians break down faces in­to dis­tinct parts.

Blais used a cam­era de­signed to track eye move­ments to study 14 Cau­ca­sian and 14 Asian par­ti­ci­pants in her re­search. The sub­jects were shown 112 Cau­ca­sian and Asian faces and asked wheth­er had seen the face be­fore and to name the dom­i­nat­ing trait. The study con­firmed that Cau­casians study the tri­an­gle of the eyes and mouth, while Asians fo­cus on the nose, Blais said.

Cau­ca­sian and Asian sub­jects ex­celled at rec­og­niz­ing some­one of their race, yet both had si­m­i­lar trou­ble iden­ti­fy­ing some­one of an­oth­er eth­nic group, she added. Ac­cord­ing to Blais, also re­flects the an­a­lyt­i­cal ap­proach of Cau­casians and the ho­lis­tic ap­proach of Asians.

In a sec­ond ex­pe­ri­ment, test sub­jects had to pin­point an emo­tion: sur­prise, fear, dis­gust or joy. Asians mostly fo­cused on the eyes and not enough on the mouth, which meant some emo­tions were wrongly iden­ti­fied, Blais con­tends. “A­sians had par­tic­u­lar prob­lems with neg­a­tive emo­tions. They con­fused fear and sur­prise as well as dis­gust and anger,” said Blais. “This is be­cause they avoided look­ing at the mouth which pro­vides a lot of in­forma­t­ion about these emo­tions.”

Cul­tur­al or bi­o­log­i­cal causes, Blais said, might ex­plain why hu­mans don’t read faces in a uni­ver­sal fash­ion.


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Caucasians and Asians don’t examine faces in the same way, according to new research. Caroline Blais, a University of Montréal doctoral student in psychology, has published two new studies on the subject in the research journals Current Biology and PLoS One. Previous studies have shown that people collect information by mostly studying the eyes as well as the mouth of a face. “The problem is that these studies always used Caucasian test subjects,” said Blais. Blais said she had questioned the universality of facial recognitions after studies showed that Asians study faces in an overall fashion, while Caucasians break down faces into distinct parts. Blais used a camera designed to track eye movements to study 14 Caucasian and 14 Asian participants in her research. The subjects were shown 112 Caucasian and Asian faces and asked whether had seen the face before and to name the dominating trait. The study confirmed that Caucasians study the triangle of the eyes and mouth, while Asians focus on the nose, Blais said. Caucasian and Asian subjects excelled at recognizing someone of their race, yet both had similar trouble identifying someone of another ethnic group, the research also found. According to Blais, this said more about the analytical approach of Caucasians and the holistic approach of Asians. In a second experiment, test subjects had to pinpoint an emotion: surprise, fear, disgust or joy. Asians mostly focused on the eyes and not enough on the mouth, which meant some emotions were wrongly identified, Blais contends. “Asians had particular problems with negative emotions. They confused fear and surprise as well as disgust and anger,” said Blais. “This is because they avoided looking at the mouth which provides a lot of information about these emotions.” Cultural or biological causes, Blais said, might explain why humans don’t read faces in a universal fashion.