Psychology Grand Rounds

Ekman’s Variants: universal, culture specific or none of them?

Psychologists have been debating for years if facial expressions are universally understood or they vary by culture. A main advocate of universality, Ekman (1972) proposed that six basic facial expressions (happy, anger, sad, disgust, surprise and fear) are universal and created the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to standardise each. Using FACS, Ekman described each basic facial expression in terms of various sets of facial muscle groups (i.e., Action Units, AUs), claiming that each represented a universal signal of emotion. On the other hand, Jack et al., (2009) and Matsumoto (1992) showed that some negative facial expressions, such as fear and disgust, are not so easily recognized among East Asian compared to Western Caucasian observers. The current study investigated for the first time, the variants that Ekman proposed as universal (Ekman’s Variant), if they are universal or cultural specific. To generate the stimuli, a state-of-the-art 3-D facial expression generator selected the relevant AUs for each expression and produced the desired 3-D facial expression. Sixteen Western Caucasian (WC) and sixteen East Asian (EA) observers performed an 8-Alternative Forced Choice categorisation task according to the 6 basic emotions, plus neutral and “don’t know” with same and other race faces. A Two-way Chi Square revealed that, although WC recognised successfully more variants in surprise, fear, anger and disgust, the difference was not significant. Our results also showed that 82% of Ekman’s Variants were not successfully recognised by any culture. Replication of the study is necessary, in order to support that Ekman’s Variants are not universally recognised and to re-examine if FACS-code tend to represent WC emotions more than EA emotions.