Some medias and the blogosphere (see here, here and here) are celebrating a new study published in Current Biology, allegedly showing that recognition of facial expressions is not universal. Psychological universalists and relativists never seem to get tired of chewing on that old bone of contention.
There are two aspects to the study. The first is a very nice exploration (by means of eye-tracking) of the way Asians process facial expressions, replicating the earlier work of Masaki Yuki and colleagues three years ago (read what Karim wrote of it at the time). Japanese subjects tend to focus on the eyes instead of the mouth to decode emotions – as one could have guessed from looking at Japanese Smiley faces : (^_^) for ‘happy’, (T_T) for ‘sad’, and other such (*_*) …
Yet the authors don’t stop at that fascinating result, and go on to try and prove another point : that because of this difference in face-processing style, East Asian subjects and ‘Caucasian’ subjects are not equally good at recognizing some of Paul Ekman‘s supposedly universal facial displays of emotions, like disgust and fear. And indeed East Asian subjects are significantly likelier than Caucasians to misinterpret happy or fearful faces.