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Rachael E. Jack, Caroline Blais, Anne-Sarah Caldara, Christoph Scheepers, Roberto Caldara; Lost in translation: Culturally tuned eye movements impair decoding of facial expression signals. Journal of Vision 2008;8(6):706. doi: 10.1167/8.6.706.
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© ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)
Face processing has long been considered a unique and universal biological skill shared by all humans. Contrary to this widely accepted belief, we recently reported a striking cultural contrast in eye movements during face recognition (Jack et al., 2006). Transmitting and decoding facial expressions also plays a critical biological role for effective social interaction and communication. Yet, the question of whether facial expressions are universal is a matter of ongoing controversial debate. Despite numerous studies on facial expression, none have systematically investigated eye movements during expression categorization and the role of the culture of the observer. Here we monitored the eye movements of Western Caucasian (WC) and East Asian (EA) observers while they categorized WC and EA faces displaying six basic emotions (happy, surprise, fear, anger, disgust and sad) plus neutral. WC observers were superior at categorizing expressions compared to EA observers, who showed a notable impairment in categorizing expressions typically suppressed in their culture - sad, disgust and anger. Interestingly, EA observers categorized these negative expressions more accurately with WC than EA faces, questioning the universality of emotion signal transmission. Fixation maps revealed striking culturally distinct scanpaths: WC observers showed a triangular pattern of fixations across expressions and race. Contrary to intuition, EA observers did not fixate the mouth region for any expression - even during accurate categorization of happy. These culturally tuned scanpaths clearly show that observers from different cultures fixate on different facial regions to decode expressions, engendering discrepancies in the communication space and inaccuracies when translating facial expression signals. The present data offers a novel explanation as to why misunderstandings frequently occur during intercultural communication, aside from the language barrier. Crucially, these observations demonstrate that facial expression decoding can no longer be considered as arising from a universal series of perceptual events.
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