Skip to content

What Matters When We Identify Others’ Facial Emotion?

September 5, 2013
Credit: anankkml Image ID: 100160713

By Kenichi Ito (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore; Institute on Asian Consumer Insight, Singapore), Takahiko Masuda (University of Alberta, Canada), & Liman Man Wai Li (University of Alberta, Canada)

Imagine that your friend’s face expresses unhappiness, and you fail to notice it. What will happen? Your friend may feel disappointed, and this disappointment may threaten your friendship. Accurately identifying others’ emotions is important in daily social interactions. But when you do attempt to judge your friend’s emotion based on his or her facial expression, how much do you take contextual information into account? For example, if you see your friend’s happy expression in the context of a natural disaster or unhappy people, do you think your friend’s expression really represents happiness?

Past research on face perception suggests that people do not evaluate others’ facial emotions in an absolute manner. Rather, these evaluations are influenced by the context in which the facial emotion is expressed. For example, Carroll and Russell (1996) presented North Americans with an image of a person’s facial expression, along with a written description of the context in which the emotion was occurring. The results indicated that having a concrete description of the context influenced the emotion judgment of the target face. However, another line of research has demonstrated that the level of context dependency in judgment systematically differs across cultures. For example, Masuda and colleagues (2008) reported that the influence of contextual information on judgment was smaller among North Americans than among East Asians.

Together, these finding raise an interesting question: Which type of contextual information affects North Americans’ judgment more?

A theoretical framework for cultural variations in the concept of self (Markus & Kitayama, 1994) helped us conceptualize this phenomenon. Markus and Kitayama (1994) suggested that North Americans share a belief in agency, such that an individual’s facial expressions are products of a volitional expression of emotional experiences, independent from the emotional experiences of others. In contrast, East Asians share a belief in interdependency; things are interrelated with each other, including each individual’s emotional experiences. Therefore, we hypothesized that when North Americans were presented with a target figure’s facial expression along with other figures (e.g., happy vs. sad others), they would downplay the influence of the other agents’ facial expression. But when a target figure’s facial expression was presented with positive or negative landscape backgrounds (e.g., beautiful flowers vs. a natural disaster), North Americans would incorporate the affective valence of the landscapes because the absence of agentic information would not allow them to isolate the target’s expressions from the rest of the scene. In contrast, we hypothesized that East Asians’ judgment would be influenced equally by either type of contextual information because they are generally sensitive to context information.


Figure 1. Examples of stimuli used in the study. The stimuli differed on the type of context (Others’ face vs. Landscape) and the consistency of valence (Congruent vs. Incongruent).

To examine the effect of different types of contextual information on facial emotion judgment across cultures, we asked East Asians and North Americans to rate the intensity of the target’s facial emotion when presented against two sets of contextual images (see Figure 1). In the first set of images, a target figure’s facial expression (happy or sad) was combined with a non-agentic context image (positive vs. negative landscape image). In the second set of images, the target figure’s facial expression was combined with an agentic context image (a pair of happy or sad others). We used the difference in judgment score between congruent images (i.e., valence of target’s expression consistent with valence of context) and incongruent stimuli (i.e., valence of target’s expression inconsistent with valence of context) as an indicator of how much the participants incorporated contextual information into their judgment.

The findings from three experiments supported our hypotheses (Ito, Masuda, & Li, 2013). Although the non-agentic context (landscapes) influenced North Americans’ judgment on the target’s emotion, the agentic context (pairs of others’ faces) did not influence their judgment. However, both agentic and non-agentic context equally influenced East Asians’ judgment. We also found that North Americans put conscious effort into ignoring the contextual information, especially the agentic context. These findings suggest that cultural beliefs about the self differently influence people’s sensitivity to context when they engage in judgment.

Author Information

Kenichi ItoKenichi Ito is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) and a Research Fellow at the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight (Singapore). His research interests are cultural variations in emotions and in close relationships. Currently, he is investigating the perception of collective emotions in Singapore and in Japan.

Takahiko MasudaTaka Masuda is an Associate Professor of Psychology at University of Alberta. His main research field is cultural psychology, including research into the influence of culture on attention, emotion, and arts and design. His current research extends to interactions between culture and neuroscience and between culture and development. The target regions of his research are North America and East Asia. 

Liman Man Wai LiLiman Man Wai Li is a graduate student at the Department of Psychology at University of Alberta. Her research examines the interplay of influences between cultural meaning systems and socioecological characteristics on psychological processes, particularly for decision making and social relationships among people with different cultural backgrounds.


Carroll, J. M., & Russell, J. A. (1996). Do facial expressions signal specific emotions? Judging emotion from the face in context. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 205–218.

Ito, K., Masuda, T., & Li, L. M. W. (2013). Agency and facial emotion judgment in context. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 763–776.

Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1994). The cultural shaping of emotion: A conceptual framework. In S. Kitayama & H. R. Markus (Eds.), Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence (pp. 339–351). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Masuda, T., Ellsworth, P. C., Mesquita, B., Leu, J., Tanida, S., & van de Veerdonk, E. (2008). Placing the face in context: Cultural differences in the perception of facial emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 365–381.

Image Credit: Reprinted under license of FreeDigitalPhotos,  Portrait of a “Sad Pretty Girl” by anankkml, published on 22 April 2013, Stock Photo – image ID: 100160713 / 

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: