Are Facial Expressions Universal? What the Research Says

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Talking to Strangers" by Malcolm Gladwell. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here .

Are facial expressions universal? It seems clear that some facial expressions, like those expressing sadness or happiness, are universal–but are they?

We’ll cover the research on whether facial expressions are universal. Along the way, we’ll look at some of the dangers of making assumptions about people based on their facial cues and body language.

Are Facial Expressions Universal?

In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, Darwin argues that it is beneficial to human survival that people are able to quickly and accurately communicate emotions to one another. If we’ve evolved to use expressions as communication, it would make sense that facial expressions are universal.

The ability to smile, frown, and wrinkle the nose in disgust are some examples of how the human face evolved as a tool to represent internal feelings. This will probably strike you as a relatively obvious principle. After all, children everywhere naturally smile when they’re happy and frown when they’re sad, and that helps them get what they need to survive. Are facial expressions universal? It seems reasonable to assume transparency.

But you should be careful not to assume that every stranger you come across will be transparent. That assumption requires everyone you meet to express themselves in the same predictable ways. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Are facial expressions universal? No.

Are Facial Expressions Universal Across Different Cultures?

Psychologist Carlos Crivelli spent years testing the limits of human transparency—he wanted to find out if people from entirely different cultures evolved to express the same emotions in the same ways. He asked, Are facial expressions universal? So in 2013, he teamed up with anthropologist Sergio Jarillo to conduct a social experiment in the remote Trobriands Islands. 

Crivelli and Jarillo chose the Trobriands Islands because: 

  • The population is incredibly small and isolated. Only 40,000 people live on the archipelago, all of whom are removed from the 21st- century lifestyle. Crivelli and Jarillo were confident that any patterns of human behavior that were consistent in places like Madrid and the Trobriands could confidently be called universal behaviors. 
  • The Trobrianders have a rich and expressive language. They didn’t shy away from questions about nuances and emotional truths. This made them good subjects for a social experiment regarding human expression.

The experiment went like this: 

  1. Crivelli and Jarillo showed school children in Madrid six photos of a person. Each photo conveyed a different expression: Happy, sad, scared, angry, disgusted, and neutral. 
  2. The children were asked to identify which picture went with which emotion. 
  3. Crivelli and Jarillo then went to the Trobriands Islands and showed the same photos to the people there. They asked the islanders to identify which picture went with which emotion.
  4. Crivelli and Jarillo examined the results of both groups to compare and contrast the difference of expression across the two groups. 
The Results–Are facial expressions universal?
  • 100% of the Spanish school children accurately identified the photo with a happy expression, but only 58% of the Trobrianders identified the same photo as happy. (And the happy photo was the one that got the most similar results between the two groups.)
  • The photo of what the Spanish children recognized as stereotypical fear was registered by the Trobrianders as a threatening expression. 
  • The photo that was meant to represent anger (with hard eyes, wrinkled brow, and tight lips) was completely confusing to the Trobrianders. 20% called it a happy face, 20% thought it was an expression of disgust, and 17% called it a sad face. In comparison, 91% of Spanish children correctly identified the photo as angry. 

Clearly, the residents of the Trobriands Islands have an entirely different way of expressing familiar emotions than young children in Madrid. In other words, every human might experience the same emotions inwardly, but the way that emotion is expressed outwardly is very different from culture to culture. Are facial expressions universal? No.

If someone from the Trobriands Islands was to encounter a child from Madrid, the assumption of transparency would make it very difficult for the two strangers to understand one another.

Are Facial Expressions Universal Within a Culture?

Cultures that express emotions differently aren’t the only roadblocks to transparency. Are facial expressions universal within a culture? German psychologists Achim Schützwohl and Rainer Reisenzein created an experiment to test how consistent someone’s expression is with how he is feeling inwardly—that is, to test whether people are generally transparent. The experiment went like this: 

  • A participant is led down a long, very narrow hallway and into a dim room. 
  • The participant sits in the room, listens to a recording of a short story, and takes a memory test about it. 
  • While the participant is listening and being tested, a team disassembles the hallway outside the door to the room. They reset the scene outside the door as a wide-open area with green walls and a bright red chair. The participant’s best friend sits in the red chair with a serious expression and waits for the participant to come out of the testing room.
  • The participant exits the testing room, expecting to see the same hallway she walked through before. The participant is surprised to see herself in an entirely new setting.  
  • Schützwohl and Reisenzein read the participant’s facial expression with FACS. 
  • They then ask the participant to rate their level of surprise at the moment they came out of the testing room and saw the new scene. 
The Results–Are facial expressions universal within a culture?

When the 60 participants that went through this experiment rated their feelings of surprise at the moment they exited the testing room, the average score among all participants was 8.14, out of 10. They were truly shocked. 

Schützwohl and Reisenzein then asked each participant if he thought that level of surprise registered on his face. Almost all of the participants were convinced that they made a transparent expression of surprise when exiting the testing room. But that wasn’t the case. Upon reviewing the recording, Schützwohl and Reisenzein determined that only 5% of participants made the stereotypical expression of surprise (eyes widen, eyebrows raise, jaw drops). 

The participants overestimated their own transparency—they reasoned that if they felt surprised they must have also looked surprised.

Are Facial Expressions Universal? What the Research Says

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Malcolm Gladwell's "Talking to Strangers" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Talking to Strangers summary :

  • Why we don't understand strangers
  • How to talk to strangers in a cautious way so you don't get fooled
  • How Hitler deceived so many world leaders

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.