Orgasm Faces Are Different Across Cultures—but Pain Looks the Same

The face you make when you have an orgasm may vary depending on the culture you come from, according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research, led by Rachael Jack, a psychologist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, also found that expressions of pain may be standard across cultures.

Humans often use facial expressions to communicate social messages. However, previous studies suggested that people experiencing pain or orgasm—two very different and intense experiences—produced facial expressions that were virtually indistinguishable. That counterintuitive observation questioned the expressions' role as effective tools for communication, according to the researchers.

To investigate the issue, the psychologists created a model of facial expressions using a computer program involving an animated face. The face displayed a set of different facial expressions using three randomly selected facial movements—such as raising eyelids or stretching the mouth—from a core set of 42.

Forty male and female participants from Western and Asian cultures were shown 3,600 of these randomly generated animated expressions and asked whether each matched up with their mental representation of a pain or orgasm face, and how intense it was on a scale ranging from “very strong” to “very weak.” If the facial expression did not match up with the participants’ mental representation of an orgasm or pain expression, they selected “other.”

Those trials helped the researchers enhance their animated facial expression generator, which they then showed to another set of 104 observers from the two cultures. That group was also asked to rate whether the faces—which were always the same race as the observer but the opposite sex—represented pain or orgasm.

To control for the possibility that the observers' mental representations or interpretation of those facial expressions could have been influenced by cross-cultural interactions, the team recruited only observers with minimal exposure to, and engagement with other cultures, as assessed by a questionnaire.

The results of those trials showed that in each culture, people consistently recognized which facial expressions represented pain and which ones represented an orgasm.

Furthermore, they found that mental representations of pain shared similar facial movements across cultures, including brow-lowering, cheek-raising, nose-wrinkling and mouth-stretching. In contrast, the mental representations of orgasm differed between cultures. For Westerners, it included wide-open eyes and an open mouth, whereas for East Asians it included a closed, smiling mouth and closed eyes.

According to the researchers, the findings inform our understanding pain and orgasm facial expressions in communication, disputing the results of previous studies which found little difference between the two. They also cast a new light on how culture shapes the representation of the different facial expressions.

Differences in the representation of orgasm faces could arise, the authors said, due to cultural ideals that influenced the behavior of individuals in that culture.

For example, research suggests that Westerners value so-called “high-arousal positive states,” such as "excitement" and "enthusiasm," which are often associated with wide-open eye and mouth movements. East Asians tend to value “low-arousal positive states,” such as “calm," which are often associated with closed-mouth smiles.

“Westerners are expected to display positive states as high arousal, whereas East Asians are expected to display positive states as low arousal,” the authors wrote in the study. “Therefore, it is likely that Westerners and East Asians display different facial expressions in line with the expectations of their culture.”

Magdalena Rychlowska, a pscyhologist from Queen's University Belfast, who was not involved in the study, praised the paper, saying it broadens our understanding of the relationship between emotions and facial expressions.

"I like the focus on the facial expressions of pain and pleasure," Rychlowska told Newsweek. "These two emotions are not commonly studied by emotion psychologists and there are relatively few publications on them. Some of these studies revealed that displays of pain and pleasure are very similar—this research shows that they may be, in fact, very nuanced."

"I am [also] impressed with the methods used in this research," she said. "While previous studies tended to examine static expressions of pain and pleasure presented on photographs, this team used a cutting-edge method that allows exploring people's mental representations of dynamic emotion expressions. Facial displays are very complex and only a careful triangulation with different techniques will bring us closer to the understanding of how they are displayed and interpreted 'in the wild'. The study definitely expands the methodological toolbox."

Rychlowska suggests that there are important real-world applications for these methods. For example, the computational models of pain could be very useful for designing robots, especially those used in clinical settings. Furthermore, she says the paper provides good evidence that while the representations of pain expressions are similar, representations of orgasm differ between Western and East Asian observers.

"However, this is only the case for representations—more data is needed to assess cross-cultural differences in real-world displays of pain and pleasure," she said. "There are many exciting studies to conduct in the field of facial expressions and this research highlights that we need to study them across cultures, using static but also dynamic displays, including subtle expressions and going beyond the six basic emotions."

This article has been updated to include additional comments from Magdalena Rychlowska.

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