Six faces.

How much we can tell about people by looking at their faces? Not as much as was once thought. I was the kind of kid who didn’t want people looking for clues into my inner thoughts. For example, if I was angry I tried to look either neutral or slightly happy. I developed the art of the poker face and did quite well with it, I thought. But I don’t remember if I was showing my true feelings by clenching my fists as though ready to punch someone; body language wasn’t important to me. I would have succeeded in keeping my emotions more private if I had noticed other ways my body was communicating my feeling states.

The scientific study of the facial expression of emotion began with Charles Darwin, who believed some emotions are expressed universally, even by animals (“The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals,” 1872. It’s no surprise that Darwin focused on the face. Not only are faces interesting in themselves, but so often we see someone show one emotion when we know they’re feeling another. We become curious about why they are hiding their feelings and how conscious they may be about it. For example, I have surprised myself many times by smiling when I’m anxious.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, professor of psychology at Northeastern University wrote about her studies in the 2-28-14 New York Times Sunday Review. Research shows, she says, that human facial expressions, viewed on their own, are not universally understood.

Barrett wrote, “Psychologist Hillel Aviezer did experiments in which he grafted together face and body photos from people portraying different emotions. When research subjects were asked to judge the feeling 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.”

Barrett found that early facial expression experiments had inadvertently hinted at the answers, which changed the results.

“In additional studies… we took steps to further prevent our subjects from being primed, and their performance plummeted even more—indeed, their performance was comparable to that of people… who can distinguish positive from negative emotion in faces, but nothing finer.

“We even [sent] an expedition to Namibia to work with a remote tribe called the Himba… We presented [them] with 6 photographs of actors smiling, scowling, pouting, wide-eyed and so on and asked the subjects to sort the faces by how the actors were feeling. The Himba placed all the smiling faces into a single pile, most of the wide-eyed faces into a second pile, and the remaining piles were mixed.

“When asked to label their piles, the Himba subjects did not use words like ‘happy’ and ‘afraid’ but rather words like ‘laughing’ and ‘looking.’ If the emotional content of facial expressions were in fact universal, the Himba subjects would have sorted the photographs into 6 piles by expression, but they did not.”

Barrett’s article has influenced me to take a more complete look at how I and others communicate emotions. Faces grab our interest, but there’s much more going on.

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