How many different emotions do you think you can communicate to people with your face? Do you have the same facial expressions as people from different cultures? Read this to find out what scientists have just discovered about this fascinating topic.

New research suggests that there are only four basic facial expressions of emotion. However, how these expressions are interpreted might depend on where you are from.

Research by scientists from the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow has challenged the traditional view of how the face expresses emotions. Until now, it was widely believed that six basic emotions (happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust) were expressed and recognised across different cultures. However, the University of Glasgow’s work now suggests that the human face only has four basic expressions of emotion. This is because some pairs of emotions are impossible to distinguish, especially when they are first registering on the face. Fear and surprise, for example, both share wide open eyes. The facial expressions for anger and disgust also look the same.

So if our faces are only able to express four basic emotions, how do we communicate a much more complex variety of feelings? The study found that the way expressions are interpreted is different in different cultures. Lead researcher Dr Rachael Jack was studying this because ‘facial expressions were considered to be universal’, she explains. However, while looking at how people from the East and West look at different parts of the face during facial expression recognition, they found that although there are some common features across cultures, the six basic facial expressions of emotion are not recognised universally.

‘We said we don’t know what a disgust face looks like in China, so the best way to go about that is to make all combinations of facial movements and show to Chinese observers and ask them to choose the ones they think are disgust faces.’ With the software they developed, they discovered that in the early stages of signalling emotion, fear and surprise, and anger and disgust, were often confused. Jack explains that these facial expressions have developed both from biology and social evolution. 

What interests people about the cross-cultural aspect of the research? ‘This work leads to understanding which emotions we share, appreciating our differences and highlighting our multicultural global experiences.’ This research could inform new ways of social communication that facilitate cross-cultural interactions. ‘You can have a Skype system where you might be interacting with someone in Japan,’ Jack explains. ‘The system would interpret your facial expressions based on knowledge of Western facial expressions, then interpret that for the Japanese observer. You can imagine they would have an avatar of the person’s face, and the facial expression would be translated into the Japanese facial expression on the avatar.’

If you're interested in science check out the British Council's science magazine called Cubed

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What did you find most surprising or interesting about this new research?


Batgirl's picture
Batgirl 6 April, 2018 - 18:40

I am really surprised about that there are only 4 facial expressions! I haven't really known about that and for me, there are hundreds of expressions. I also didn't know that every culture can express one emotion in different ways.

1 user has voted.
rose_protected's picture
rose_protected 9 September, 2016 - 22:49

Maybe that there are only four basic facial expressions of emotion and they can express the most varied human feelings. Of course, the context is very important to understand the true meaning of the feelings, but our facial expressions are also a way of being understood, of showing to the world our thoughts. And the only ones who can understand them are ourselves, humans being. That's why different cultures have different forms of comunication.

64 users have voted.
wiseteen's picture
wiseteen 29 August, 2016 - 16:24

That's really interesting and I suggest to make a research about different gestures all across the world. For example, I heard thin Bulgaria, nodding means disagreement!!!

70 users have voted.
Elsa007's picture
Elsa007 12 July, 2016 - 16:39

Human brain has a remarkable ability to read emotions from subtle facial expressions just like a baby does to survive! Unfortunately, it's hard to know it exactly through text messages with emoticons which can hide what one really feels. I wonder people nowadays are becoming more insensitive to others' feelings, although there has been a dramatic and unexplained increase in the number of people diagnosed with autism (brain disorder) which is marked by poor social and communication skills and by repetitive behaviour. Apart from this, eventually, communication without reading facial emotions or using five senses seems to be nonsense......

70 users have voted.
Ken's picture
Ken 16 January, 2016 - 05:28

Indeed, there are lots of interpretations of facial expressions in Japan. I see a great number of emoji and it's fun to think about which emoji would best fit my feeling! People say Japanese are more sensitive in colours, tastes and designs... Interesting topic!
(੭ ˃̣̣̥ ω˂̣̣̥)੭ु⁾⁾

67 users have voted.
ceren123's picture
ceren123 3 January, 2016 - 18:08

In my opinion,most interesting research ''There were actually six basic facial expressions, but new research shows that the four basic facial expression.

66 users have voted.
Mary04's picture
Mary04 12 June, 2015 - 16:19

"The system would interpret your facial expressions based on knowledge of Western facial expressions, then interpret that for the Japanese observer. You can imagine they would have an avatar of the person’s face, and the facial expression would be translated into the Japanese facial expression on the avatar."
it's really interesting and I'd like to see it.

64 users have voted.
cklj's picture
cklj 2 February, 2015 - 22:38

The whole article about this research was interesting. I think that it is important to know how to communicate properly with facial expressions. To me it wasn't surprising at all when I read about the similarities between a face that express fear and surprise, anger and disgust. It's strange and surprising about the differences between recognizing facial expressions across the world.

67 users have voted.
toxicvenom2000's picture
toxicvenom2000 15 November, 2014 - 18:19

The thing that suprised me and i didn't no of is that different cultures have differnt facial expressions

72 users have voted.