Perceptions of emotion from facial expressions are not culturally universal: evidence from a remote culture

Emotion. 2014 Apr;14(2):251-62. doi: 10.1037/a0036052.


It is widely believed that certain emotions are universally recognized in facial expressions. Recent evidence indicates that Western perceptions (e.g., scowls as anger) depend on cues to U.S. emotion concepts embedded in experiments. Because such cues are standard features in methods used in cross-cultural experiments, we hypothesized that evidence of universality depends on this conceptual context. In our study, participants from the United States and the Himba ethnic group from the Keunene region of northwestern Namibia sorted images of posed facial expressions into piles by emotion type. Without cues to emotion concepts, Himba participants did not show the presumed "universal" pattern, whereas U.S. participants produced a pattern with presumed universal features. With cues to emotion concepts, participants in both cultures produced sorts that were closer to the presumed "universal" pattern, although substantial cultural variation persisted. Our findings indicate that perceptions of emotion are not universal, but depend on cultural and conceptual contexts.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison
  • Culture*
  • Emotions*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Namibia
  • Perception*
  • United States