May 16

Facial Expressions: Reading Emotions Via Observation

Can we read other people’s facial expressions? If so, what exactly can we tell from them?

In 1968 psychologist and behavioral scientist Paul Ekman began to test his hypothesis that faces show us some basic universal emotions—emotions, in other words, that aren’t culturally based or related. His eventual conclusion was that there are indeed six universal emotions: anger, happiness, surprise, disgust, sadness, and fear. Since then others have been added to the list.

Incidentally, Ekman was also one of the first to study the reading of micro expressions. From his website:

Micro expressions are very brief facial expressions, lasting only a fraction of a second. They occur when a person either deliberately or unconsciously conceals a feeling. Seven emotions have universal signals: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, contempt, surprise and happiness. You can learn to spot them.

Although Ekman’s theories are popular, they’ve been contested by some, including Lisa Feldman Barrett of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory at Northeastern University, who concludes there’s a lack of universality after all.

When we are to be able to “read” others, a significant factor, Barrett notes, is body language, which assists us in picking up cues from the face. From her recent essay in The New York Times:

If faces do not ‘speak for themselves,’ how do we manage to ‘read’ other people? The answer is that we don’t passively recognize emotions but actively perceive them, drawing heavily (if unwittingly) on a wide variety of contextual clues — a body position, a hand gesture, a vocalization, the social setting and so on.

The psychologist Hillel Aviezer has done experiments in which he grafted together face and body photos from people portraying different emotions. When research subjects were asked to judge the feeling being communicated, the emotion associated with the body nearly always trumped the one associated with the face. For example, when shown a scowling (angry) face attached to a body holding a soiled object (disgust), subjects nearly always identified the emotion as disgust, not anger.

Body language expert Joe Navarro, Psychology Today: “…(T)here are over 215 behaviors associated with psychological discomfort and most of those are not in the face.” Also, interestingly, “…(T)he feet are more accurate than the face in revealing sentiments and intentions and…all of our body is constantly transmitting vital information.”

But this isn’t to say we can’t still have some fun reading faces. At Greater Good, for instance, you can test your “emotional intelligence” by viewing various faces and picking out the matching feeling. Sounds simple enough, I thought, as I proceeded to guess the first example—but I got it wrong and thus had to hang my head in shame (perceived by no one, as I was alone). (Then again, any head-hanging was no doubt unnecessary, keeping in mind that the foundation for some of these tests may be flawed.)

Research regarding a more distinct variation, “compound facial expressions of emotion,” has led to developing even newer quizzes on face readings. From a recent Abstract by Ohio State University:

Past research on facial expressions of emotion has focused on the study of six basic categories—happiness, surprise, anger, sadness, fear, and disgust. However, many more facial expressions of emotion exist and are used regularly by humans. This paper describes an important group of expressions, which we call compound emotion categories. Compound emotions are those that can be constructed by combining basic component categories to create new ones. For instance, happily surprised and angrily surprised are two distinct compound emotion categories.

Check out another quiz at The Guardian. Surprisingly—though maybe I was just trying harder—I did much better this next time around.