Understanding Contextual Facial Expressions Across the Globe

Posted by Alan Cowen, Visiting Researcher and Gautam Prasad, Software Engineer, Google Research

It might seem reasonable to assume that people’s facial expressions are universal — so, for example, whether a person is from Brazil, India or Canada, their smile upon seeing close friends or their expression of awe at a fireworks display would look essentially the same. But is that really true? Is the association between these facial expressions and their relevant context across geographies indeed universal? What can similarities — or differences — between the situations where someone grins or frowns tell us about how people may be connected across different cultures?

Scientists seeking to answer these questions and to uncover the extent to which people are connected across cultures and geography often use survey-based studies that can rely heavily on local language, norms, and values. However, such studies are not scalable, and often end up with small sample sizes and inconsistent findings.

In contrast to survey-based studies, studying patterns of facial movement provides a more direct understanding of expressive behavior. But analyzing how facial expressions are actually used in everyday life would require researchers to go through millions of hours of real-world footage, which is too time-consuming to do manually. In addition, facial expressions and the contexts in which they are exhibited are complicated, requiring large sample sizes in order to make statistically sound conclusions. While existing studies have produced diverging answers to the question of the universality of facial expressions in given contexts, applying machine learning (ML) in order to appropriately scale the research has the potential to provide clarity.

In “Sixteen facial expressions occur in similar contexts worldwide”, published in Nature, we present research undertaken in collaboration with UC Berkeley to conduct the first large-scale worldwide analysis of how facial expressions are actually used in everyday life, leveraging deep neural networks (DNNs) to drastically scale up

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