Washington, April 22 : University of Alberta researchers say cultural upbringing influences how people read facial expressions.
Takahiko Masuda, a professor of Psychology, made about 80 Japanese and American student participants see a series of images showing a centre model and four background individuals.
The participants were asked to indicate in each image whether the central figure was sad, happy or angry.
The researchers manipulated the facial expression of the centre person or the background foursome.
While the answers of more than 70 per cent of Japanese students were influenced by the emotions of the background figures, the same percentage of Western participants said that the background individuals did not influence them.
During another round of image-viewing, the researchers observed that Japanese subjects spent more time looking at the surrounding people than did the Westerners.
"When North Americans are trying to figure out how a person is feeling, they selectively focus on that particular person's facial expression, whereas Japanese consider the emotions of the other people in the situation," Live Science quoted Masuda as saying.
The researchers said that results of their study might reflect North Americans' "rugged individualism" and tendency to stress human independence over reliance on the group. "East Asians seem to have a more holistic pattern of attention, perceiving people in terms of the relationships to others. People raised in the North American tradition often find it easy to isolate a person from (their) surroundings," said Masuda.
The researcher further said that East Asians are accustomed to "kuuki wo yomu", meaning "reading the air" of a situation.
"As a result, they think that even surrounding people's facial expressions are an informative source to understand the particular person's emotion," Masuda said.
The results will be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.