In their classic study, Ekman and Friesen (1971) identified seven facial expressions recognised by people universally across all cultures as depicting certain emotions: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, disgust and contempt. This is quite solid paradigm, but recent studies showed some cross cultural differences. For example Western Caucasian observers tend to look fairly evenly across all areas of the face, whereas Eastern Asian observers focus their attention toward the eye region (Jack et al., 2009).

Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17(2), 124-129.

Jack, R. E., Blais, C., Scheepers, C., Schyns, P. G., & Caldara, R. (2009). Cultural confusions show that facial expressions are not universal. Current biology, 19(18), 1543-8.

While facial expression literature on the topic is vast, there is very limited research into cross cultural differences in perception of emotions from dynamic body expression. There have been some attempts to look at the static body posture (Kleinsmith et al., 2006), but virtually nothing on the dynamic body expressions. Ok, there is one study by Sneddon et al. (2011) but their stimuli contain facial expression together with movement, and I am specifically interested in the research where participants only view body movement/expression.

Kleinsmith, A., De Silva, P. R., & Bianchi-Berthouze, N. (2006). Cross-cultural differences in recognizing affect from body posture. Interact. Comput., 18(6), 1371-1389.

Elfenbein, H. (2003). Universals and Cultural Differences in Recognizing Emotions. Current Directions in Psychological, 159-164.

Sneddon, I., McKeown, G., McRorie, M., & Vukicevic, T. (2011). Cross-cultural patterns in dynamic ratings of positive and negative natural emotional behaviour. PloS one, 6(2).

Is there any (published) research that has been done on comparing cross cultural differences in the perception of emotions from body movement?

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    $\begingroup$ There is a vast amount of literature on the different meanings of gestures across cultures, including a multitude of guides for business negotiations. As for the recognition of emotion in general, independent of the channel of communication (face, body gesture, and speech), it seems that people are only slightly better than chance at recognizing emotions (a meta-analysis: ambadylab.stanford.edu/pubs/2002ElfenbeinMeta.pdf). A cross-cultural study of something so vague seems premature at this point. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 8:34

1 Answer 1


The following article PERCEPTION OF EMOTIONS FROM FACES AND BODIES AND THE INFLUENCE OF CONTEXT by Charlotte Sinke (I have quoted the aims and outline from) examines in depth interpretation of dynamic body language and cross cultural differences. It discusses the availability of studies with static images, facial expressions and voice and the relationship between these in perception and cross cultural differences. Although this doesn't examine a large range of cultures, it's interesting and provides a good resource of cited articles.

Research aims and thesis outline

Previous emotion research has mainly focused on the perception of facial expressions. Only in recent years, bodily expressions are being studied. This has been done by using pictures of isolated bodies. However, in our daily life, bodies are not static and do not appear in isolation. Therefore, the stimuli used in Chapter 5 and 6 are dynamic. There is reason to believe that the perception of faces and bodies might be influenced by the context it is in. This can be the physical environment, the culture, or other people. The question therefore is how a face or a body, being emotional or not, is processed differently in specific contexts. Since everything that we do involves in some way other people, it is interesting to find out how the brain responds to an interaction between two people and whether it notices subtle differences in body language that can indicate whether a threat is going on. A final question was how attention can play a role in this perception.
Across cultures the expression of basic emotions is remarkably similar. However, emotion perception can be influenced by other factors, like the (social) context. Whether people from different cultures are differently influenced by this will be discussed in Chapter 2. More specifically, Dutch and Chinese students were tested on whether they show differences in the recognition of facial but also bodily expressions and whether they are differently influenced by context. The studies described in this chapter are purely behavioural.
Moving away from cultural differences, in Chapter 3 the influence of context on face processing is investigated using fMRI. Chapter 4 elaborates on the data from this study. Here, the activation of extrastriate body area is discussed in relation to its response to threatening scenes specifically.
The study performed in Chapter 5 moves from static pictures to dynamic movies of two people interacting. This interaction was either threatening or teasing. A difference is made in whether participants actively try to guess what goes on in each situation or perform an unrelated task. Chapter 6 expands on perceiving threatening social interactions by using two different attention levels and letting the participant focus on only one of the two protagonists (always one of them being angry at the other) in each movie.
Finally, in Chapter 7, the insights gathered from the preceding chapters are summarized.

Charlotte Sinke


Interesting quote:

“Every phase of movement, every small transference of weight, every single gesture of any part of the body reveals some feature of … inner life.” ~ Rudolf Laban ~

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, the whole thesis is also an interesting find as a source of references. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 13:15
  • $\begingroup$ @GeekOnAcid I thought so! She has an avid interest in this area :) It was a find, glad it is helpful (just 12 months late!) $\endgroup$
    – user10932
    Commented Nov 18, 2013 at 13:30

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