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Attentional Bias to Facial Expressions of Different Emotions – A Cross-Cultural Comparison of ≠Akhoe Hai||om and German Children and Adolescents

  • Mühlenbeck, Cordelia1, 2
  • Pritsch, Carla3
  • Wartenburger, Isabell4
  • Telkemeyer, Silke4
  • Liebal, Katja2
  • 1 Department of Psychology, Brandenburg Medical School Theodor Fontane, Neuruppin , (Germany)
  • 2 Comparative Developmental Psychology, Department of Education and Psychology, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin , (Germany)
  • 3 Graduate School “Languages of Emotion”, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin , (Germany)
  • 4 Department of Linguistics, Cognitive Sciences, University of Potsdam, Potsdam , (Germany)
Published Article
Frontiers in Psychology
Frontiers Media SA
Publication Date
Apr 28, 2020
DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00795
PMID: 32411056
PMCID: PMC7199105
PubMed Central


The attentional bias to negative information enables humans to quickly identify and to respond appropriately to potentially threatening situations. Because of its adaptive function, the enhanced sensitivity to negative information is expected to represent a universal trait, shared by all humans regardless of their cultural background. However, existing research focuses almost exclusively on humans from Western industrialized societies, who are not representative for the human species. Therefore, we compare humans from two distinct cultural contexts: adolescents and children from Germany, a Western industrialized society, and from the ≠Akhoe Hai||om, semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers in Namibia. We predicted that both groups show an attentional bias toward negative facial expressions as compared to neutral or positive faces. We used eye-tracking to measure their fixation duration on facial expressions depicting different emotions, including negative (fear, anger), positive (happy), and neutral faces. Both Germans and the ≠Akhoe Hai||om gazed longer at fearful faces, but shorter on angry faces, challenging the notion of a general bias toward negative emotions. For happy faces, fixation durations varied between the two groups, suggesting more flexibility in the response to positive emotions. Our findings emphasize the need for placing research on emotion perception into an evolutionary, cross-cultural comparative framework that considers the adaptive significance of specific emotions, rather than differentiating between positive and negative information, and enables systematic comparisons across participants from diverse cultural backgrounds.

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