Are Facial Expressions Universal Across Cultures?

Are the facial expressions we use to express emotion the same across all cultures?

Charles Darwin believed our facial expressions to be fundamentally based in biology, and therefore universal across the species. But anthropologists of later decades vehemently disagreed. In their view, facial expressions were completely learned social constructs.

To resolve the debate, researcher Paul Eckman carried out a series of clever experiments.

He chose subjects from different cultures, read each one a simple story, then asked the subject to select the facial expression that fit the story.

For example, if I told you a story about a child playing with his dog, which facial expression would you select?

You probably selected face A, as you immediately recognized it as a face of joy.

As it turns out, people from all cultures were able to correctly match the facial expressions for happiness, anger, disgust and sadness. This suggests that Darwin was right — facial expressions are more biological than cultural.

There was, however, one interesting area of cultural distinction.

In pre-literate societies, the participants were unable to distinguish the faces of fear and surprise.

For example, in New Guinea, the participants were just as likely to select the fear face for the Surprise story. And for the Fear Story, they were just as likely to select the Surprise face.

Eckman later asked the New Guineans to make the face for each story themselves. He then showed photos of these faces to American college students. These students were unable to distinguish any difference between the new guinean surprise face and the New Guinean Fear face.

To this day, Eckman does not understand why fear and surprise were not distinguished from each other for the pre-literate cultures. As he wrote in Emotions Revealed:

It could have been a problem with the stories, or it could have been that these two emotions are so often intermingled in these people’s lives that they aren’t distinguished.

That last observation struck me as deeply interesting.

Did we learn a distinction between fear and surprise as our civilization became more advanced?

This is the question I will explore in this essay.

The Storyline of Emotions

I recently saw a wonderful film called Alita: Battle Angel. It takes place centuries in the future, and opens with a robot surgeon finding the living remains of a cyborg girl in a scrapyard.

The surgeon restores consciousness to the cyborg by transplanting it to a new robot body. When the cyborg girl awakes, she is full of life and vigor, and the surgeon takes a fatherly liking to her.

One day, while the surgeon shows the girl around the city, the girl reveals that she has no memory of her past and doesn’t even know her own name. She asks the surgeon if he could come up with a name for her, and gives her the name “Alita.”

In the very next shot, the camera focuses on the nurse, whose facial expression changes from one of pleasant joy to one of mild concern. Then it shows the surgeon’s face as “Alita” hugs him — he’s smiling, but his eyes possess a certain sadness.

As viewers, we now suspect the name “Alita” holds special significance to the Surgeon. Indeed, as we discover later in the film, Alita was the name of his deceased daughter for whom he originally built the cyborg body.

Emotions are story clues.

They indicate to us a plot of what happened in the past, what’s happening in the present, and what we expect might happen in the future.

To understand an emotion, you have to understand the storyline that it is clueing us into.

So what is the storyline of Surprise?

Surprise is the emotion we feel in the presence of the unexpected.

Sometimes, that unexpected experience can be delightful. Imagine coming home and finding all your closest friends had secretly organized a surprise party for you.

Other times, an unexpected experience can be disastrous. You are hiking through the woods with your father, when suddenly a cobra lunges from a tree branch and bites his arm.

How does the Surprise storyline compare to that of fear?

Surpise vs Fear

When I told my dad about Eckman’s finding that fear and surprise are not distinguished in pre-literate societies, it reminded him of an experience he once had in Niger.

He and his other American friend were on a road trip in the country, and at one point they came to a place where the road ended. They left their car and wandered into the bush.

While walking, they suddenly stumbled upon a lioness with her cubs. The felines seemed unperturbed by their presence, so they took a few moments to admire their beauty before moving along.

After walking a bit longer, they discovered a pristine fresh-water lake. Seizing the opportunity to cool down after a long sweaty hike, they stripped down naked swam in the lake for the rest of the afternoon.

Later on, they returned to their car and drove into a nearby village to eat dinner and spend the night. They made friend with some locals and told them the story of the lake they swam in.

Soon as the villagers understood which lake they were referring to, they were shocked:

“You swam in THAT lake?” they asked.

“Yeah it was great! What’s the big deal” replied my dad and his friend.

“That lake is filled with Alligators!”

Like the rest of us, my father and his friend are products of the environment.

Where they came from, lionesses were something to marvel at in zoos, not something to run away from screaming in terror.

Where they came from, pristine water bodies were something to swim in, not dens of man-eating carnivores.

So for them, the unexpected presence of such things evoked a feeling of delight.

Compare this emotional stance to that of the villagers, for whom nature was an all-too-real everyday threat.

For them, the unexpected presence of a lioness or an alligator meant death. Perhaps it already led to death for people close to them in the past.

In fact, for most humans for most of human history, unexpected circumstances were most often deadly circumstances.

That being the case, there was no need to distinguish between fear and surprise; both emotions shared the same storyline.

The fact that we’ve learned a new storyline, one in which surprise can be joyful, it quite the societal feat when you think about it.

The unexpected is a permanent fixture of life. But our ancestors have so thoroughly mastered the natural world that we don’t have to worry about the unexpected killing us anymore.

Now that the unexpected poses less threat to us, we can transcend the fear it inspires in us and instead follow the plot of a fruitful emotion:

That of pleasant surprise 😆.




Entrepreneur, Hyperglot, and Educator. Founder at and

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Idahosa Ness

Idahosa Ness

Entrepreneur, Hyperglot, and Educator. Founder at and

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