UC Berkeley researchers find people express emotions similarly worldwide

Photo of Expressions
Researchers from UC Berkeley and Google have found that people from different geographic and cultural backgrounds express similar facial expressions in certain social situations. The study gathered data from six million videos that were uploaded to YouTube by individuals from 144 countries.

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A study by UC Berkeley and Google researchers found that across various cultures, people express similar facial expressions in specific social situations, such as protests, weddings and funerals.

The research spanned over 144 countries’ geographic and cultural boundaries. These resemblances were shared among 70% of the people in the countries studied, which constitutes 12 regions from around the world, according to the study.

Dacher Keltner, campus psychology professor and co-director of the Greater Good Science Center, and Alan Cowen, campus emotion scientist and visiting faculty researcher at Google, were among the researchers.

“What study tells us is that across dramatically different cultures, people express these emotions with patterns of facial expression in similar ways,” Keltner said in an email.

In the experiment, the researchers gathered six million videos uploaded to YouTube by people in the 144 countries showcasing a variety of social situations, according to Keltner. Using machine-learning technology, the researchers detected facial expressions corresponding with 16 emotions, including amusement, anger, disappointment and triumph.

The technology was also used to analyze what social context the person in the video was in, Keltner added.

Keltner noted in the email that although more isolated studies pertaining to people’s facial expressions have been conducted in labs, this study shows how people express emotions in a similar pattern across drastically different cultures. The study also uniquely provided more information on emotions that have not been studied as much, such as awe, elation and doubt.

Beyond promoting empathy among different cultures, the study can be applied to help children and adults with autism better decipher emotions, recognizing the faces people tend to make to convey emotions, according to a Berkeley News press release.

According to Keltner, ultimately, in the social contexts that matter deeply to people, there is a lot of commonality in how people express emotions through their faces.

“What is deeply universal to who we are as a species has to do with our emotions, our capacities for awe, love, and elation as well as pain, sadness, and doubt,” Keltner said in the email.

Contact Mela Seyoum at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @melaseyoum.