Learning to read smiles starts at a very young age

From seven months a child can decipher emotions expressed on faces, but the strategies it uses differ depending on the culture in which it lives. An international study coordinated by Roberto Caldara, Professor of Psychology at the University of Fribourg, shows that the social environment in which a baby is raised influences the way in which it reads and expresses emotions.

At a very tender age, humans develop neuronal circuits specifically dedicated to showing and recognising a variety of facial expressions. These in fact play a crucial role in the survival of the species. However, it also appears to be more and more evident that it is social norms which determine when and in what way certain emotions are expressed. Studies already carried out at the University of Fribourg show that the perceptual mechanisms which adults use to transmit and decode visual emotional signals differ between East and West. These studies show that it is clearly the mouth which is the centre of attention and expression for Westerners, while it is the eyes which are the focal point for people in Asia. “These mechanisms are moreover reflected perfectly in the use we make of emoticons”, explains Roberto Caldara, Professor at the Laboratory of Visual and Social Neuroscience and Head of the Eye and Brain Mapping Laboratory (iBMLab) of the University of Fribourg. In Asia, changes of expression are shown by the eyes and happy and sad are translated respectively by: ^_^  and T_T, while in the West the difference is expressed by the mouth:  :) and :( . This is a cultural difference which is equally reflected in the figure of Hello Kitty, created by the Japanese illustrator Yuko Shimizu, which is an anthropomorphic cat which expresses facial emotions without having a mouth.

The mouth or the eyes
Though proven for adults, there was as yet no study which examined at which age these differences appear. To find out, Roberto Caldara coordinated a study conducted in England, Italy and Japan which shows that a baby of seven months already uses the same strategies as adults in the social environment in which it is growing up.

Tests were conducted on 77 children born in England and 76 children born in Japan. Their eye movements were followed and analysed while they looked at expressions of joy or fear on Western and Asian faces in turn. The results show that Western children focus their attention on the mouth and Asian children on the eyes, thus reproducing what has been observed in adults from the same regions. It is also clearly apparent that their strategy does not change according to the origin of the face they are exposed to. Thus the study confirms the early and dominant influence of the social environment on the way in which the very young decode facial emotions.

Link to the study, published in Current Biology Magazine.