Neural evidence for cultural differences in the valuation of positive facial expressions

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European Americans value excitement more and calm less than Chinese. Within cultures, European Americans value excited and calm states similarly, whereas Chinese value calm more than excited states. To examine how these cultural differences influence people’s immediate responses to excited vs calm facial expressions, we combined a facial rating task with functional magnetic resonance imaging. During scanning, European American (n = 19) and Chinese (n = 19) females viewed and rated faces that varied by expression (excited, calm), ethnicity (White, Asian) and gender (male, female). As predicted, European Americans showed greater activity in circuits associated with affect and reward (bilateral ventral striatum, left caudate) while viewing excited vs calm expressions than did Chinese. Within cultures, European Americans responded to excited vs calm expressions similarly, whereas Chinese showed greater activity in these circuits in response to calm vs excited expressions regardless of targets’ ethnicity or gender. Across cultural groups, greater ventral striatal activity while viewing excited vs. calm expressions predicted greater preference for excited vs calm expressions months later. These findings provide neural evidence that people find viewing the specific positive facial expressions valued by their cultures to be rewarding and relevant.

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