Facial expressions make people easy to read. If someone is very expressive they are usually not great at poker because they struggle to contain their excitement when they have a winning hand. At least that was what I always thought. New research suggests that the facial expression someone has can actually be very misleading.
At the beginning of this month, findings were presented at an annual health conference. The presentation showed the results of numerous studies that compared muscle movements in the face with people’s emotions. The findings showed that you can often misinterpret an emotion based on someone’s facial expression and that you will be right more often than not if you ignore the facial expression because it is usually misleading.
The study highlighted that often people who are unhappy smile, and that people who are not smiling are happy. There are many reasons to smile whether it is because of nervousness, because of fear, because you are hiding something or something else entirely. In addition, every person is different and some people are far more expressive than others. This makes sense as in recent years we have seen a rise in the term ‘resting b**ch face’. Those people whose neutral face often looks like they are annoyed, but they are not.
One aspect of the study asked participants to look at close up photos of facial expressions and to determine the person’s emotion. It found that people usually misinterpreted the emotion of the individual. The best example we saw was of a footballer. The photo was a close up of his face. He appeared angry, his face was red, his brow furrowed, his mouth wide open as he appeared to be shouting. However, when the photo zoomed out, his arms were spread wide and he was running from a goal. He had just scored an incredibly important goal for his team.
This part of the study shows that the face alone can not be used to interpret someone’s emotion. The goal scorer was playing soccer, he had just scored a goal, he was from a nation where it is common to react with this passion. If the participants had been told all of this information they would have of course known he was happy.
This suggests then that while facial emotions are often misinterpreted when taken in isolation, they are still a useful tool in understanding someone. However, we have to use everything available to us to make our judgment.
Some of this may seem obvious but trust me it is not. Today there are many technology solutions in development that will predict emotions based on facial expressions. There are call center video chat solutions in development that will try to determine how angry someone is based on their facial expression and tone of voice and place them in the appropriate channel. There are solutions coming to a university near you soon that say they can examine the facial expressions of students and determine if they are paying attention. There are solutions that are being tested in job interview scenarios to determine how comfortable a candidate was during a test. In isolation these tools are useless. However, if we take the facial expression as just one ingredient in understanding someone’s emotion then it is still very valuable.
The face is one place that many people can’t hide emotion. Whether it is turning red from embarrassment, smiling with delight from a win, or being unable to hold back tears after a sad movie. The face is often the lead indicator in understanding someone’s emotional position. We can’t throw out facial expressions completely but we can better understand that they are nothing without a wider context.