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In your face!

Dicembre 2016
Felicità, tristezza, paura, rabbia, sorpresa e disgusto sono ritenute le sei emozioni base, ma possono essere tutte tradotte con espressioni facciali universalmente comprensibili? No, anche la mimica dipende dalla cultura di provenienza...

di John O’Reilly | © British Council

File audio:

Speaker: Justin Ratcliffe (Standard British accent)

A new study has discovered that human faces only show four basic emotions. It also shows that how we understand these emotions depends on our "cultural background" – where we come from.


Until now, scientists believed that there are six basic emotions that people from all cultures recognize. These are: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust. Now, however, scientists from the Institute of Neuroscience and Technology and Psychology at the University of Glasgow have challenged this view. Their work suggests that there are actually only four basic emotions. How people understand these depends on where they grow up. The study has been in the news a lot, because the team have created a new computer programme. This programme can be used to increase empathy and improve communication between different cultures.

dr jack

The main researcher, Dr Rachael Jack, studied how people from different cultures decode facial expressions, like a smile or a sad face. She wanted to know whether facial expressions were the same everywhere. But she was surprised to find that they are not always the same. Some of the facial expressions were the same, but not all six of the basic emotions were recognized by everyone.
"People from different countries understood the emotion from the face differently," explains Dr Jack, so she decided to find out more about the reasons for this.


The team used a method from the 1970s called "Reverse Correlation." The scientists began with Chinese people. They didn’t show one picture of someone showing "disgust" and then ask the Chinese people what the emotion was. Instead, they used their computer programme to show lots of different faces and then asked the people to point to the one that showed "disgust." This helped the scientists get a much better picture of the differences between cultures.
The computer programme can also recognize the difference between a natural facial expression and a facial expression in a photograph. The computer programme showed that fear, surprise, anger and disgust were often confused.


Dr Jack explains that facial expressions are related to biology and social situations. "This study shows which emotions we share, and which are different in different cultures," Dr Jack says, "now, we know more about emotion and character." This can help us develop new communication technologies, for example using programmes like Skype. When you talk to someone in Japan, a programme would "read" your facial expressions and then "translate" them for the Japanese person. The Japanese person would see the Japanese facial expression on their screen. In this way, people from different cultures can understand each other better.

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