Saturday, May 19, 2012

Science Saturday: Facial Recognition

Universality of Facial Expressions Called Into Question.

More specifically, a recent experiment about recognizing the moods of facial expressions has suggested a difference between how Western Caucasians and East Asians interpret facial expressions.

Let's start out with a small experiment of our own. How does this man feel? Is he surprised or scared?

I found it difficult to decide, not the least because of semantics: something that's scary is inherently surprising, after all! I had to peak at the image name to get a conclusive answer as to the mood intended. It is, indeed, surprise.

According to the article, Caucasians tended to put expressions in discreet categories, while East Asians saw borders between, say, anger and disgust, as fuzzy and mutable:

Observers, half of whom were Western Caucasian and half East Asian (with little experience of each other’s culture), were asked to categorise each animation as one of six basic emotions – anger, happiness, fear, sadness, disgust or surprise – or “other”, and judge the emotional intensity of each animation. 
For Western Caucasian observers, the facial movements categorised as each of the six basic emotions appeared distinct and all observers identified the same emotions.
By contrast, these same distinct movements were not seen in the categorisations made by East Asians, who showed a high degree of overlap in the categorisation of certain movements. This was particularly the case between fear and surprise, as well as anger and disgust. 
Other differences were also apparent between the observations of Western Caucasians and East Asians. In particular, the perception of emotional intensity in some expressions was cued by rapid changes to the eye region for East Asians, whereas Western Caucasians took their cues from other parts of the face.

The last paragraph is interesting to me because I've heard the same thing from Koreans in casual conversations. That's why sometimes Western internet smileys, such as ":)" ":-/" or  ":(", make no immediate sense to them—beyond them inexplicably being sideways, it's the mouth shape that indicates the mood. Compare that to East Asian style smileys: "^_^" ">_<" or ";_;" where variation in the eyes is  the key to the meaning. As a result, Westerners tend to have more exaggerated mouth movements, and East Asians tend to have more exaggerated eye movements.

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