Culture Affects How We Read Faces

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How people read facial expressions of others says a lot about their cultural upbringing, a new study suggests. While Americans home in on a central figure, Japanese take in facial expressions of an entire group to gauge a person's emotional state.

The results could reflect North Americans' "rugged individualism" and tendency to stress human independence over reliance on the group.   "East Asians seem to have a more holistic pattern of attention, perceiving people in terms of the relationships to others," said lead researcher Takahiko Masuda, a psychology professor at the University of Alberta. "People raised in the North American tradition often find it easy to isolate a person from [their] surroundings."

Masuda added East Asians are accustomed to "kuuki wo yomu," which literally translates to "reading the air" of a situation. "As a result, they think that even surrounding people's facial expressions are an informative source to understand the particular person's emotion," Masuda said.

The results will be detailed in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Reading faces

For Masuda's study, about 80 Japanese and American student participants viewed a series of images showing a center model and four background individuals. In each image, participants indicated whether the central figure was sad, happy or angry. The researchers manipulated the facial expression of the center person or the background foursome.

More than 70 percent of Japanese students said their answers were influenced by the emotions of the background figures. About the same percentage of Western participants said they were not influenced by the background individuals.

In another round of image-viewing, the researchers found Japanese subjects spent more time looking at the surrounding people than did the Westerners.

"When North Americans are trying to figure out how a person is feeling, they selectively focus on that particular person’s facial expression," Masuda said, "whereas Japanese consider the emotions of the other people in the situation."

Cultural divide

As international trade, labor migration and the spread of technology become dominant forces for the global economic and social landscape, fluency in cross-cultural differences is becoming critical for just about everyone.

Here are just a few more examples of how and why:

  • Take the cultural conundrum of the greeting: Cheek-kissing would be expected when meeting a friend or business associate in regions such as Latin America, but not so much in some Asian communities.
  • A brain-scan study, detailed in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science, revealed another cultural lens. Americans have a tougher time comparing one object to others, while East Asians had trouble making an absolute judgment about a single object.
  • Past research has shown that Japanese individuals look to a person's eyes to glean emotional cues, whereas Americans focus on the mouth. Since eyes are trickier to control than the mouth, the researchers of that study suggested Japanese could be better than Americans at perceiving a person's true feelings.

The recent research was supported by the Culture and Cognition Program and Rackham Graduate Program at the University of Michigan and by the Center of Cultural and Ecological Foundation of the Mind at Hokkaido University.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.