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Facial expressions of emotion are not culturally universal

Since Darwin’s seminal works, the universality of facial expressions of emotion has remained one of the longest standing debates in the biological and social sciences. Briefly stated, the universality hypothesis claims that all humans communicate six basic internal emotional states (happy, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, and sad) using the same facial movements by virtue of their biological and evolutionary origins [Susskind JM, et al. (2008) Nat Neurosci 11:843–850]. Here, we refute this assumed universality. Using a unique computer graphics platform that combines generative grammars [Chomsky N (1965) MIT Press, Cambridge, MA] with visual perception, we accessed the mind’s eye of 30 Western and Eastern culture individuals and reconstructed their mental representations of the six basic facial expressions of emotion. Cross-cultural comparisons of the mental representations challenge universality on two separate counts. First, whereas Westerners represent each of the six basic emotions with a distinct set of facial movements common to the group, Easterners do not. Second, Easterners represent emotional intensity with distinctive dynamic eye activity. By refuting the long-standing universality hypothesis, our data highlight the powerful influence of culture on shaping basic behaviors once considered biologically hardwired. Consequently, our data open a unique nature–nurture debate across broad fields from evolutionary psychology and social neuroscience to social networking via digital avatars.

School of Psychology, University of Glasgow, Scotland G12 8QB; Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology, University of Glasgow, Scotland G12 8QB, United Kingdom;  Department of Psychology, University of Fribourg, Fribourg 1700, Switzerland

Edited by James L. McClelland, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, approved March 19, 2012

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