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One Key to Improving Your Ability to Read Others

New research reveals an important cue you can miss when judging emotion.

Key points

  • Identifying people's emotions based on their facial expressions can be difficult and confusing. A blush may help reveal emotional information.
  • Anger and surprise are associated with redness and blushing, while disgust and fear are associated with paleness.
  • People are typically capable of distinguishing tears of happiness from tears of sadness.
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

People’s facial expressions can provide a strong set of signals to suggest what they’re really feeling. However, there are those sly individuals who have mastered the art of the “poker face,” making their emotions almost unfathomable. Try as you might, you can’t figure out from their eyes, mouth, or foreheads what’s really going on inside them.

Making matters worse, even emotion experts in psychology admit that the opposite facial expressions can signify the same emotions and vice versa. Have “tears of laughter” ever confused you about a friend’s reactions to good news?

According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Christopher Thorstenson and colleagues (2021), “perceptions of the expressions for certain emotion pairs (anger-disgust, surprise-fear), are often confused by observers due to the finding that these emotion pairs share common expressive features between them.” It’s one thing for experimenters to have to puzzle their way through this problem and quite another for you to figure out why that friend might be mysteriously saddened by what should be considered a matter of great joy.

The Science Behind Blushing

As Thorstensen et al. point out, what psychological researchers may be missing is one of the most self-evident features of the face that can give away someone’s honest feelings. If you enjoy reading Victorian novels, you’re probably encountered this cue as a key indicator of a character’s emotions. Consider Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Both the hero and the heroine seem unduly prone to blushing, a fact observed by Texas A&M’s Mary Ann O’Farrell in her paper, “Austen’s Blush.”

Because emotion researchers typically have not considered the role of facial coloration as an emotional cue, Thortensen et al. maintain, they may be missing out on opportunities to gain insights into the emotion decoding processes that people use in their daily lives. Blushing, an involuntary reaction, can appear on people’s faces across a variety of skin tones, and unlike the muscular disguises people learn how to manipulate, it may be far less subject to deliberate control.

Citing background research, the research team points out that there’s a solid physiological basis for the altered facial coloration of people who are experiencing particular feelings primarily due to changes in the vasculature supplying the skin. Very simply, this means that when your autonomic nervous system is aroused, blood starts to rush to your face.

The key feature of these facial coloration cues is that, unlike frowns, smiles, or even crying, these parallel distinctly different emotions. As the authors point out, anger and surprise are associated with facial “redness,” but disgust and fear with facial “greenness” (i.e. pallor). The research question the authors posed was whether observers can use experimentally-generated variations in facial color of experimentally-created stimuli to improve emotional cue reading accuracy.

Testing How a Blush Is Perceived

Across a series of experiments, Thorstensen and his colleagues provided their young adult college students (recruited from the University of Rochester) with facial stimuli representing the emotional states of anger vs. disgust, surprise vs. fear, and tearful sadness vs. happiness.

The basic framework of these experiments involved the researchers showing participants a set of computer-generated faces that were known (through prior experimentation) to be ambiguous in their emotional expression. To test the effect of facial coloration as an emotional cue, the researchers presented these faces tinted in varying shades corresponding to the emotion pair being contrasted.

Knowing that the faces were indeed confusing on their own, the authors reasoned that if people choose one emotion compared to its opposite on the basis of color, this would reinforce the proposition that facial coloration is indeed an important emotion-reading signal.

Across the first two studies, Thorstenson and his collaborators, using faces ranging from reddish to greenish, established that as the redness of the ambiguous faces increased, participants were more likely to rate them as demonstrating anger vs. disgust and fear vs. surprise. Additionally, as facial redness increased, participants rated the faces as showing increasingly intense emotions.

Interestingly, in the fear-surprise experiment, participants rated moderately reddened faces as showing surprise, but as the faces portrayed became increasingly reddened, participants judged the face as more afraid than surprised. The authors interpreted this finding in terms of the way people actually do react when something scary shows up unexpectedly.

Imagine that you’re having a pleasant walk in the middle of the day and a bicyclist comes out of nowhere, almost knocking you down. Your first response would be surprise but fear will almost immediately engulf you. This connection between surprise and fear would then help to explain the pattern of findings associated with the effects of redness on emotion reading by the participants. The more intensely red the face became, the more participants saw it as reflecting fear.

Distinguishing Between Happy Tears and Sad Tears

Return now to the question of how you can tell whether someone’s tears reflect sadness or happiness. Thorstenson and his fellow researchers decided to delve into this complex question by creating a new set of faces, this time of women (top half of the face only). This time, they added a red-yellow dimension to the design, based on previous studies showing that redder and yellower faces are judged as happy while greener and bluer faces appear to be sadder. Although “tearful,” there were no actual tears flowing from the eyes of the computer-generated stimuli.

In line with Thorstenson et al.’s predictions, the participants judged the faces that were redder and yellower as happier. However, those saddish eyes were never really perceived by participants as “happy.” Indeed, as the authors note, “it may be the case that tearful sadness and happiness are not confusing at all, in that they do not share many common expressive features other than tears.” In other words, if you see someone crying, you’re less likely to be confused as to what emotion the person is experiencing.

The Good News and Bad News About Facial Emotion Cues

The main positive takeaway from the study is that adding facial coloration to your set of emotion-reading tools can potentially be of great value. If someone you’ve inadvertently insulted tries to disguise an angry reaction, paying attention to the degree of redness of the individual’s face can let you know that an apology is in order. Tearful-looking eyes, similarly, are more likely to reflect true sadness than happiness, particularly if the rest of the person’s face is becoming pale.

You can also take heart in the fact that you're judging real people, not computer-generated images. Situational context plus this new facial-reading cue can improve your ability to gauge the effects of your words.

The bad news from this study is that all the faces used as stimuli were those of light-skinned people and they were either all male or all female depending on the study. The findings therefore won’t be of much help to you if you’re trying to judge people of varying baseline skin tone. More research is needed in this aspect of facial perception, as the authors acknowledge. In real life, furthermore, people (primarily women) wear makeup, including blush, which could make the cues based on their underlying cardiovascular reactions that much more obscured.

To sum up, the next time you’re unsure of how someone is feeling, judgments based on the color of their face can give you an extra set of potential cues to help you navigate the situation. Complex emotions are a defining feature of complex relationships, and by improving your accuracy, you’ll have at least one more resource to help make those relationships as fulfilling as possible.

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Thorstenson, C. A., McPhetres, J., Pazda, A. D., & Young, S. G. (2021). The role of facial coloration in emotion disambiguation. Emotion, doi: 10.1037/emo0000900