Faces of emotion: social or innate?
It is common finding that, in the United States, females are more facially expressive than males. This advantage now appears to be importantly influenced by cultural factors and social training, since women from Taiwan and mainland China do not show more facial expressiveness than their male counterparts, according to a study reported in New York City this week at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.
At the same time, report psychologists Ross Buck and Wan-Cheng Teng of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, there are substantial differences in facial expressiveness between subjects from Taiwan and mainland China. This suggests, in their view, that "political and social changes taking place within a few generations can profoundly affect the spontaneous emotional expressiveness of the population of a nation, with far-reaching personal and cultural consequences.'
The researchers showed emotionally loaded color slides to 44 foreign students at the University of Connecticut, 24 from Taiwan and 20 from mainland China. In addition, 20 U.S. students were shown the slides. The slides included scenes of nude males and females, pleasant landscapes, severe burns and facial injuries, unusual photographic effects and people familiar to the students. Unknown to the subjects, their facial and gestural responses to each slide were recorded by a hidden videocamera. Later, alter the presence of the camera was revealed and their permission to use the videotapes was granted, each subject attempted to match the appropriate slide to taped facial expressions obtained from the other students.
Among the results: Subjects from all three countries were equally likely to pick the correct slide for facial expressions of both male and female Chinese students; there was a marked advantage in choosing the correct slide for U.S. females' expressions compared with those of U.S. males; and students looking at someone of either sex with pronounced facial expressiveness could identify the appropriate slide regardless of their own cultural background (this ability, however, was stronger for females from each nationality).
The results, although tentative, are consistent with the theory that the ability to interpret spontaneous nonverbal communication is innate and universal to the human species, say the investigators.
Yet the spontaneous facial expressions of Taiwanese students were significantly more indicative of what they were viewing than were the expressions of mainland Chinese students. The greater exposure to worldwide media and emphasis on individuality in Taiwan may promote this difference between people from the same ancient Chinese culture that has split along political and ideological lines, say the Connecticut researchers.
There may be other reasons for the greater expressiveness of the Taiwanese, they add. One of the experimenters was from Taiwan, and relations between Taiwan and the United States have always been cordial, which may have served to make Taiwanese students less defensive and inhibited in the laboratory.
It is also possible, say Buck and Teng, that female subjects in the study were more expressive than they appeared. For example, students from Taiwan and mainland China who rated the videotapes may have expected females to have negative reactions to sexual slides when, in fact, some females may have had positive, amused responses to those scenes. Thus, negative reactions by females may have been pegged inaccurately to viewing a sexual slide.
But for now, say the researchers, it appears that the ability to send spontaneous emotional messages through facial expressions is subject to social influence, while the ability to understand those messages lies outside the social realm.