Student Research Project: Zhiyuan (Zack) Liu’s “Exploring attentional biases towards foreigners’ facial expressions of pain in Chinese observers”

Zhiyuan (Zack) Liu is one of the nine winners of 2022 Freedom Lab’s Shirley Graham and W.E.B Du Bois Award.

His research project is highlighted below. Read other student researcher’s projects here >>



Supported by Professor Shan Wang

Project title:
Exploring attentional biases towards foreigners’ facial expressions of pain in Chinese observers

Project summary:
Facial expression is a dominant nonverbal channel for pain communication that is often incorporated in clinical pain assessment. Given the importance of nonverbal communication between foreign patients and doctors, understanding the role of sufferers’ race is of great significance. Essentially, prior to recognize and assess pain-related facial expressions, observers will first allocate their attention to the faces. The study aims to examine Chinese observers’ attentional bias on pain-related facial expressions of foreigners from multiple racial backgrounds by tracking the eye-gaze, skin conductance, and behavioral reaction time.

Interests in this topic:
We are interested in this topic since little research has considered racial factors in the early attentional processes of facial expressions of pain, not to mention under a cross-cultural context. For example, China now has a foreign population of over one million. How will Chinese observers attend to West Caucasians’ and African Americans’ facial expressions of pain? Would they attend to pain faces differentially for White Caucasians or for African Americans, and preferentially attend to East Asians’? Would such race-based attentional bias exist in a cross-cultural context during pain decoding through facial expressions? This leaves an open question of whether sufferers’ race could be counted as another factor influencing observers’ decoding of pain-related facial expressions.

Current stage:
The project has been approved by DKU IRB committee. Currently, we are preparing for the validation test of experimental stimuli and finalizing the structure of experimental procedure. Through the project, we hope to address the aforementioned research gap by examining whether Chinese would (1) show attentional biases towards foreigners’ pain-related facial expressions compared with East Asians’ faces (2) show attentional biases towards White Caucasians’ pain-related facial expressions compared with African Americans’ faces. This project also hopes to investigate the mechanisms underlying the possible racial disparities by considering the impact of participants’ level of empathy towards suffers from different races.



Zhiyuan Liu

Zhiyuan Liu (Zack) is a senior majoring in Behavioral Science with the track in Psychology at Duke Kunshan University (DKU). His research interests include cognitive biases, pain recognition, cultural disparities, and attentional allocations. Zhiyuan works as Research Assistant in Professor Shan Wang’s Cognition-Perception-Action Lab. Previously, Zhiyuan served as Research Investigator on two major field research funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) in the Global Health Research Center and Environmental Research Center in 2020. In 2021, Zhiyuan successfully secured a research fund from Humanities Research Center Health Humanities Lab and completed his initial research investigating racial disparities in Chinese observers’ estimation of White Caucasian, African American and Eastern Asian sufferers’ pain intensity and treatment recommendations. His academic poster for his initial research was awarded the First Prize in Global Health Poster Competition at DKU in 2021. The findings of his research project have been accepted by two international conferences – EFIC Congress 2022 and IASP World Congress 2022.