Medical Biophysics Graduate Student Association


Updates, opinion pieces, and news related to the department

Culture And Facial Recognition: More Than Meets The Eye

How do you examine others’ faces? Do you find it easy, difficult, or downright impossible to gauge the emotions of others in your daily interactions? You might be surprised to learn that your ability to perform these tasks is largely influenced by the culture that you grew up in, according to new research conducted by Caroline Blais at the Université de Montréal.

In two recent articles (PLoS One 3(8): e3022 (2008), Current Biology 19: 1543 (2009)), Blais argues that Caucasians and Asians do not examine faces in the same way, and thus will often gather differing emotional information from those they are interacting with. Specifically, Eastern cultures have a lower tendency to recognize negative facial expressions than Western cultures do. Why is that? And how is it even possible to quantify such a thing?

Blais and her co-authors designed an ingenious camera to track the eye movements of groups of Asian participants and Caucasian participants while they studied the facial expressions of large groups of photos. Specifically, each group was shown 112 Asian faces and 112 Caucasian faces, and asked to both determine the dominating trait in each photo (e.g. fear, surprise, disgust, joy) and whether or not they had seen that particular face before. Not only were the results surprising, but they helped answer the question of why Asians have a more difficult time recognizing negative facial expressions. As it turns out, Asians have a tendency to study faces in an overall fashion (focusing on the nose and eyes while mostly ignoring the mouth), while Caucasians will typically break a face down into parts (focusing on the triangle of the eyes and mouth). Because Asians will often ignore cues from the mouth, Blais argues that this can often lead to misidentified emotions (e.g. confusing fear and surprise or anger and disgust).

Interesting? Certainly. But what is the ultimate goal of research such as this? Researchers who work in this field point out that the mutual understanding of emotions is central to all human interactions. However, all previous studies in this field had been performed using Caucasian participants, and as such, it was always assumed that facial recognition patterns were universal across all humans. These intriguing results question this assumption and highlight the true complexity of human facial expressions of emotion. These are important things to keep in mind, given the level of globalization and cross-cultural communication that occur nowadays. Wouldn’t it be interesting to continue research such as this with several more cultural groups? I believe that information such as this would be invaluable for today’s global relations, whether you’re a student collaborating with scientists in another country, a politician attempting to bridge cross-border foreign affairs, or even a tourist on vacation in an unfamiliar country. Being sensitive to cultural differences will not only make you a more polite person, I would argue it will make you a better human being.