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Int J Psychol. 2011 Dec;46(6):401-35. doi: 10.1080/00207594.2011.626049.

In the eye of the beholder? Universality and cultural specificity in the expression and perception of emotion.

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  • 1Swiss Center for Affective Sciences, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland.


Do members of different cultures express (or "encode") emotions in the same fashion? How well can members of distinct cultures recognize (or "decode") each other's emotion expressions? The question of cultural universality versus specificity in emotional expression has been a hot topic of debate for more than half a century, but, despite a sizeable amount of empirical research produced to date, no convincing answers have emerged. We suggest that this unsatisfactory state of affairs is due largely to a lack of concern with the precise mechanisms involved in emotion expression and perception, and propose to use a modified Brunswikian lens model as an appropriate framework for research in this area. On this basis we provide a comprehensive review of the existing literature and point to research paradigms that are likely to provide the evidence required to resolve the debate on universality vs. cultural specificity of emotional expression. Applying this fresh perspective, our analysis reveals that, given the paucity of pertinent data, no firm conclusions can be drawn on actual expression (encoding) patterns across cultures (although there appear to be more similarities than differences), but that there is compelling evidence for intercultural continuity in decoding, or recognition, ability. We also note a growing body of research on the notion of ingroup advantage due to expression "dialects," above and beyond the general encoding or decoding patterns. We furthermore suggest that these empirical patterns could be explained by both universality in the underlying mechanisms and cultural specificity in the input to, and the regulation of, these expression and perception mechanisms. Overall, more evidence is needed, both to further elucidate these mechanisms and to inventory the patterns of cultural effects. We strongly recommend using more solid conceptual and theoretical perspectives, as well as more ecologically valid approaches, in designing future studies in emotion expression and perception research.

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