This Is What Your Face Reveals About You

... and research into who is better at perfecting a poker face.

Posted Jun 11, 2016

Aleshyn_Andrei/Shutterstock
Source: Aleshyn_Andrei/Shutterstock

The face you have might be the face you were born with, but the messages your face sends aren't predetermined by your genes. I'm not talking about plastic surgery, fillers, or Botox, which can help you change under a physician or aesthetician’s care. Unless you have a face transplant you are going to be “you” for your entire life—but what your face communicates can be more under your control than you realize.

Apart from your gender, race or ethnicity, and age, it's your facial expressions that provide the most significant clues about you to the outside world. Regarding your age, there will be influences associated with your geography and lifestyle habits. The Floridian or Arizonian Caucasian individual will most likely look far older than his or her Irish counterpart who’s rarely exposed to the strong UV rays of the sun. A smoker will have more wrinkles than a non-smoker, as will a tanning-booth frequenter. Just the simple act of wearing a hat can help preserve the protein-sensitive molecules of the skin that otherwise start to sag and discolor with each day of sun exposure.

However, facial aging may also have a deeper significance than just the decisions you’ve made about whether or not to protect it. According to Schaefer et al. (2015), the younger your face seems, the younger your biological age may be as well. Coco Chanel said it best: “Nature gives you the face you have at twenty; it is up to you to merit the face you have at fifty.”

You might like to be able to “earn” that youthful face by subduing the facial cues that show how you feel in any given situation. The less you frown, the less likely you are to develop downturned lines around your mouth and furrows in your forehead. Even if you’re not trying to avoid permanent etching of your face by the of emotions that cross it, you might find it handy to be able to put on a poker face that makes your thoughts and feelings are inscrutable to onlookers. Perhaps you’re about to buy a vehicle, and want to get the best price. Showing how excited you are about that cute yellow Honda could end up costing you hundreds or thousands of dollars. Similarly, if you’re at a very boring meeting or family gathering, showing your desire to escape could be pretty offensive to everyone who’s trying to create a pleasant and harmonious atmosphere.

As it turns out, the odds of scoring a poker face may increase as you get older. Australian Catholic University psychologist David J. Gedder and collaborators (2016) compared samples of 35 older and younger adults on a lab task in which they were instructed to regulate their emotions while viewing positive and negative pictures under one of three conditions: watching (the control condition); trying to suppress facial emotion (the suppression condition); and trying to look without feeling anything (the detached condition). Both age groups were equally able to suppress their facial emotions (as measured by activation of their facial muscles), but the older adults were able to do so because they felt the emotions less strongly. Therefore, it took less effort for them to maintain a poker face because they weren’t as responsive to the emotions depicted in the images.

Outside of the laboratory, the ability to control emotions may benefit older adults in situations when it’s not an advantage to show how you really feel. For younger adults, that facial regulation may take more effort. What seemed to help younger adults reduce their emotional suppression was the instruction to view the images from a detached perspective. These were their specific instructions:

“Refocus your thinking to imagine that the scenes in each picture are not real, but rather a part of a dream or movie. To do this, we would like you to view each picture with detached interest, viewing them objectively rather than as personally or emotionally relevant to you” (p. 117).

The positive pictures were intended to produce amusement or happiness (such as a child on the beach with seagulls or puppies) and the negative ones were intended to produce sadness or disgust (a plane crash or a cockroach). The detachment instructions were particularly helpful in reducing frowns while viewing the negative images. In terms of felt emotions (how participants reported feeling), though, the instruction to suppress feelings helped younger adults more than the older ones.

The upshot: You can control the expressions your face conveys, especially if you tell yourself to do so, or try to view the situation from an objective point of view. This is most likely what professional poker players have learned to do. Don’t get upset because the cards aren’t going your way. Keep your cool and focus on a strategy that will get your opponents to make bets that will benefit you. If you’re happy, and hoping for a beneficial outcome from a situation without showing your excitement, the Gedder et al. study suggests that you just need to tell yourself to settle down.

If you haven’t lived long enough to derive the benefits of automatically keeping your emotions under wraps, to feel less of the emotion you want your face to show, you need to engage in more of an active regulation strategy. Once you’ve done that, you'll benefit from the clear face of objectivity.

One interesting side finding from the study was that, in general, younger adults reported higher levels of anxiety in the week preceding their participation. There was no relationship between this felt anxiety and their facial expressions, so the study's outcome was not affected. However, it does mean that younger adults have more internal angst, which causes their negative emotions to be more of a handicap for them on a daily basis. The young may wish to take a page from their elders' playbook since they seem to live life in a more mellow state—or maybe it's that people who live longer do so because they’re less tense.

If you’re a young, more high-strung individual, it may take considerably more cognitive resources to keep your face looking even-keeled and at rest, regardless of what you’re feeling on the inside. But doing so will benefit your relationships with others by communicating more self-assured and confident messages. If you’re lucky, you’ll also live to 50 (and beyond) with the less careworn face that you’ve “earned.”

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask questions about this post.

References

Pedder, D. J., Terrett, G., Bailey, P. E., Henry, J. D., Ruffman, T., & Rendell, P. G. (2016). Reduced facial reactivity as a contributor to preserved emotion regulation in older adults. Psychology And Aging, 31(1), 114-125. doi:10.1037/a0039

Schaefer, J. D., Caspi, A., Belsky, D. W., Harrington, H., Houts, R., Israel, S., . . . Moffitt, T. E. (2015). Early-Life Intelligence Predicts Midlife Biological Age. Journal Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbv035

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016