Think about all of the interactions you have on a daily basis. As humans, we spend much of our lives interacting face-to-face with other people. Now consider how many emotions and thoughts run through your brain with each moment of the day. Aside from when we explicitly, verbally express these emotions to other humans, how is it that we can communicate with others without speaking? The human face is an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to communication. Simple changes in our expression can signal happiness, fear, or surprise. Our face can reveal a lot about ourselves whether intentionally or unintentionally, and can even be used to deceive. What about when we are trying to communicate with people not from our town? Our country? Our culture? Do our facial expressions mean the same thing to others as they do to us? Authors Rachael E. Jack and Philippe G. Schyns, in a review article published by Current Biology, recently summarized the current scientific literature that concern these fascinating questions about the human face and social communication.
What about when we are trying to communicate with people not from our town? Our country? Our culture? Do our facial expressions mean the same thing to others as they do to us?
The first topic that Jack and Schyns discuss is the face as “a dynamic system for transmitting and decoding information.” Communication, they explain, is the act of transferring information. In that regard, there must be more than one subject involved: one to send and one to receive information. The receiver must decode information that is sent. For example, he or she sees the facial expression of a person and uses their own prior individual experience to infer what that person means to express, such as happiness or anger. However, it is not as simple as this; communication can be complicated in a few ways. It can be difficult for one person to interpret another’s facial expression from a far distance. Also, a communicator may be smiling when he or she is actually sad, in which case his or her facial expression is not sending honest information. Because the face is so dynamic, it is a very unique tool.
It is incredibly interesting to think that of the millions of humans to ever walk the Earth, no one has had the same face as you. As the authors explain, there are three “dimensions” of variation. First, because of the many different muscles that control the face, the face is dynamic and can make many different expressions. Second, the morphology of every face contributes to its uniqueness, such as cheek bone prominence, jaw shape, and forehead height. Third, everyone’s complexion is different. I have a freckles and a small scar on my chin, while another person may have darker pigmentation and a birth mark. In some cultures, piercings and tattoos may play a large role in communicating social status or identity. With all of the millions of variations in how a human face can look, it is amazing that we can understand what each face communicates to us.
Does this understanding of facial communication carry across cultures? To begin, a series of studies resulted in the creation of what are called Action Units (AUs) for facial movements. A facial expression such as ‘sad’ would be created by AU1 (Inner Brow Raiser), AU4 (Brow Lowerer), and AU15 (Lip Corner Depressor). The researchers of these studies claim to have discovered the AUs for six universal emotions. This finding seemed limiting to some scientists, because it is general and does not test if there are cultural differences, even if slight. Using a Generative Face Grammar (GFG), which can illustrate different facial expressions on an image-generated model, scientists tested the six emotions with a Western Caucasian model and an East Asian model. Using the emotions ‘disgust’ and ‘anger’ the researchers concluded that the mouth is more informative of these two emotions in Western Caucasians while the eyes play a larger role in expressing these emotions in East Asians. By mapping out these differences, the researchers found that the six universal emotions may not be universal in expression.
Using the emotions ‘disgust’ and ‘anger’ the researchers concluded that the mouth is more informative of these two emotions in Western Caucasians while the eyes play a larger role in expressing these emotions in East Asians. By mapping out these differences, the researchers found that the six universal emotions may not be universal in expression.
The final concept that Jack and Schyns discuss is that of social trait impressions based on the face. One’s perception of others is influenced by a person’s morphology, which was defined here as one’s physical characteristics.. For example, some physical traits are attractive and some morphologies assert dominance, while others may assert trustworthiness. The researchers found that facial expressions can dominate morphology when it comes to perception, meaning a smile could cause a naturally dominant face to look trustworthy. This shouldn’t be a surprise if you think about how actors can portray all personality types by changing their expression.
The face is an incredibly dynamic and useful tool for communication.
The face is an incredibly dynamic and useful tool for communication. Although every person’s face is unique, expressions and emotions can be widely recognized. While there is still so much to discover in terms of cultural differences in facial expressions, future research is sure to shed light on this fascinating topic.
Jack RE & Schyns PG. The Human Face as a Dynamic Tool for Social Communication. J Cell Biol 2015; 25: R621–R634