Cultural Differences in Reading Faces

facial expressionsThe hottest new thing in neuromarketing is facial coding – the reading of fleeting facial expressions to determine true emotional reaction. Although the concept isn’t new – it dates to Paul Ekman‘s groundbreaking research in the 1950s to 1970s – the ability to capture and interpret facial expressions automatically with simple cameras and even webcams is driving the new interest. Big companies like Coca Cola and Unilever are adopting the technique as standard (see Neuromarketing: For Coke, It’s the Real Thing), and the technology is being made available to companies of any size by firms like Affectiva and YouEye.

One of Ekman’s breakthroughs was the discovery that most facial expressions are similar across many cultures. While this hasn’t changed, new research shows that there are indeed differences:

Some prior research has supported the notion that facial expressions are a hard-wired human behavior with evolutionary origins, so facial expressions wouldn’t differ across cultures. But this study challenges that theory and used statistical image processing techniques to examine how study participants perceived facial expressions through their own mental representations.

…The study found that the Chinese participants relied on the eyes more to represent facial expressions, while Western Caucasians relied on the eyebrows and mouth. Those cultural distinctions could lead to missed cues or misinterpreted signals about emotions during cross-cultural communications, the study reported.

Reading into this, it seems the study focused more in how facial expressions are processed by viewers vs. physical differences in manifestation of emotions. Either way, this is a bit of a caution to market researchers hoping to gauge reactions to their ads or products. It might be a good idea to add one or two questions about cultural origins to check for any differences. Of course, that would be a good idea in any case – facial expressions aside, a given ad or product may provoke very different reactions among people from various cultures.


This post was written by:

— who has written 986 posts on Neuromarketing.

Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

Contact the author

Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing Get 100 amazing brain-based marketing strategies! Brainfluence is recommended for any size business, even startups and nonprofits!
Guy KawasakiRead this book to learn even more ways to change people's hearts, minds, and actions.   — Guy Kawasaki, author of Enchantment and former chief evangelist of Apple
Brainfluence Info


5 responses to "Cultural Differences in Reading Faces" — Your Turn


Ana Hoffman
Twitter: AnaTrafficCafe
20. March 2013 at 12:29 am

Pretty interesting stuff, Roger; although hard to know where to go with it. lol


Dr. Kimberly Rose Clark 28. March 2013 at 11:37 am

Jim Tanaka is currently one of the leading specialists in facial expression research. In the past he has studies race-related differences in facial expression processing. His recent work has found that children with autism don’t have as keen of an ability for displaying emotive facial expressions skills than those that don’t. To be sure, there’ been a large body of evidence of the caveats to processing, but there are some significant trends in normative expressions.

Many others, myself in the mix, continue to study the dynamics of and possible applications for facial encoding and processing and their potential impact on consumer behavior.


Alessandro Adamo 2. April 2013 at 10:03 am

Dear Roger,

Very interesting post as usual.

I am currently writing a book on advertising and anthropology and I have trained with Dr Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to analyse facial actions and apply it to advertising & sales.

If we have to be specific, I would say that while it can be true that different cultures can express certain emotions differently and focus on different parts of the face because of specific cultural influences, the trained eye would not miss the wrinkles which are universal expression of joy for both western and asian cultures. On this specific problem, it was executed a test in which both western and asian subjects were in a dark room alone while watching a movie. A camera was recording each participant’s facial action and showed that the expression of joy was the same cross-culturally when shown in private.

Now, this research might suggest that, in order to favour communication between people it’s important to be aware of cultural differences to express certain emotions, but it wouldn’t be quite correct to say that facial expressions do not have an evolutionary significance.


shaista 28. May 2013 at 5:29 am

its true that different cultures can express certain emotional differences and also by face because of specific cultural like eastern and american culture is totally different by face,eyes etc.


Sanchit 4. January 2014 at 10:25 am

Not really sure if facial expressions are all that different. Ekman went to the remote tribes of Papa New Guinea (I believe), and found no significant differences. What might change is the level of masking the emotion. And certain slips that people from various cultures might give away


Leave a Reply