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Facial Recognition: Ethic Differences

September 2011 - A small-scale study of Chinese and Caucasian residents of Glasgow has shed light on cultural differences in the recognition of facial emotion. Facial expressions have regularly been considered to be universal signals of emotion but there is evidence that people from different cultures view happy, sad or angry facial expressions in different ways.

The study used statistical image processing techniques to examine how participants perceived facial expressions through their own mental representations. Lead researcher Rachael E. Jack, PhD, of the University of Glasgow said:

"By conducting this study, we hoped to show that people from different cultures think about facial expressions in different ways. East Asians and Western Caucasians differ in terms of the features they think constitute an angry face or a happy face."

"A mental representation of a facial expression is the image we see in our 'mind's eye' when we think about what a fearful or happy face looks like," said Rachael Jack. "Mental representations are shaped by our past experiences and help us know what to expect when we are interpreting facial expressions."

Fifteen Chinese and 15 Caucasians participants looked at emotion-neutral faces on a computer screen. The images were altered randomly and participants were asked to categorize the expressions as happy, sad, surprised, fearful, disgusted or angry. The researchers could then identify the expressive facial features associated with each emotion by the participants. Chinese participants were found to rely more on the eyes, while Western Caucasians relied on eyebrows and mouth to interpret emotions.

Rachael E. Jack concluded:

"Our findings highlight the importance of understanding cultural differences in communication, which is particularly relevant in our increasingly connected world. We hope that our work will facilitate clearer channels of communication between diverse cultures.

Reference: "Internal Representations Reveal Cultural Diversity in Expectations of Facial Expressions of Emotion," Rachael E. Jack, Roberto Caldara and Philippe G. Schyns, PhDs; University of Glasgow; Journal of Experimental Psychology: General; Vol. 141, No. 1.

Asian and Caucasian Differences

Research by Caroline Blais from the Université de Montréal department of psychology published in Current Biology and PLoS One in 2010 found that Caucasians and Asians examine faces in different ways. The author explains that previous studies based on Caucasian subjects alone demonstrated that information was collected by studying the eyes and the mouth. Subsequent studies revealed that Asian subjects tended to study the total face, while Caucasians broke it into distinct components. The author suggests that this may reflect cultural or biological differences and may be indicative of the analytical approach of Caucasians and the holistic approach of Asians.

In the first of two studies, the eye movements of 14 Caucasian and 14 Asian volunteers were tracked as they were shown 112 Caucasian and Asian faces. They were asked if they had seen the face before and to name the dominant trait. The study found that Caucasians studied the triangle formed by the eyes and mouth, while Asians focused on the nose. Both groups excelled at recognizing someone of their own race but experienced difficulty identifying a member of a different ethnic group.

In a second study, participants were asked to assess the subjects' emotional state: surprise, fear, disgust or joy. The researcher concluded that by primarily focusing on the eyes and insufficiently on the mouth, Asian participants tended to incorrectly identify some emotions.

Caroline Blais explained:

"Asians had particular problems with negative emotions. They confused fear and surprise as well as disgust and anger. This is because they avoided looking at the mouth which provides a lot of information about these emotions."

The "Cross-Race Effect"

A study by Miami University psychologist Kurt Hugenberg and graduate students Michael Bernstein and Steven Young published in Psychological Science in 2007 highlighted the "cross-race effect", a well-replicated if not fully understood phenomenon involving difficulty in distinguishing between people of other racial groups.

Researchers point out that this can have diverse adverse consequences including the "disturbingly common occurrence of eye-witness misidentifications".

It has been argued that this may simply result from lack of contact with individuals of other racial groups. However, the current study found that the cross-race effect occurred in the absence of racial difference and may reflect the tendency to categorize people into in-groups and out-groups based on social categories like class.

Undergraduate study participants were told they were viewing computer screen images of fellow Miami students (the in-group) or students from Marshall University (football rivals and the "ultimate out-group"). All the faces were white; none were students at either university. However, participants proved better able to recognize faces they believed were fellow Miami students.

The researchers commented:

"People frequently split the world up into us and them, in other words into social groups, be they racial, national, occupational, or even along the lines of university affiliation. Our work suggests that the cross-race effect is due, at least in part, to this ubiquitous tendency to see the world in terms of these in-groups and out-groups."

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