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The role of culture in perception and interpretation of smiles

Research Topic
The role of culture in perception and interpretation of smiles

Lead Researcher
SZAROTA Piotr Rafał, Associate Professor, Institute of Psychology, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw

Host Researcher
Yoshiyuki Ueda, Senior Lecturer, Kokoro Research Center, Kyoto University

According to the SIMS model (Niedenthal et al., 2010) there are three distinct classes of smiles: reward smile is the display of amusement or happiness, affiliative smile expresses positive social motives, and finally, dominance smiles serve to communicate higher social status or control. The authors presented empirical evidence that these functionally distinct expressions also elicit different physiological responses. However, as Niedenthal et al. (2010) have explicitly stated: “The SIMS model has been largely developed using data collected in Western countries”.

A main assumption that guides this research project is that cultures differ significantly in the way the facial expressions are perceived and decoded. Some researchers emphasize the cross-cultural variations in the role of the mouth and eyes in smiles. Generally, in Western cultures mouth is crucial in the identification of the facial expression, while in East Asia the focus is on the eyes region. Moreover, there are significant differences in social values between individualistic and collectivistic cultures, which may also affect the evaluation of certain facial displays. While individualistic cultures foster rationality and interpersonal exchange, collectivistic cultures encourage relatedness and communal relationships. As Covas-Smith et al. (2010) noted: “The dominance smile […] may never developed as a display of pride in a culture that values equality over individual achievement”.