University of California, San Francisco, CA, USA
The argument about whether facial expressions of emotion are universal or culture-specific goes back more than 100 years. For most of that time the evidence was sparse, but in the last 30 years there have been many research studies. That has not served to convince everyone, but it has sharpened the argument. I will review the different kinds of evidence that support universals in expression and cultural differences. I will present eight challenges to that evidence, and how those challenges have been met by proponents of universality. I conducted some of this research and have been active in answering the challenges, so I am not a disinterested commentator, but probably no-one is. I will try to present the evidence and counter-arguments as fairly as I can, so that readers can make up their own minds.
Most of the research on universals in facial expression of emotion has focused on one method—showing pictures of facial expressions to observers in different cultures, who are asked to judge what emotion is shown. If the observers in the different cultures label the expressions with the same term, it has been interpreted as evidence of universality. Most of the challenges have been against this type of evidence, arguing that the lack of total agreement is evidence of cultural difference.
There have been other types of studies relevant to universals, studies in which facial behavior itself is measured. This too has been challenged. Near the end of this chapter I will more briefly summarize still other research relevant to universals, evidence which heretofore has not been brought to bear: studies of other animals, studies of the relationship between expression and physiology, studies of the relationship between expression and self-report, and conditioning