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How to Figure Out Exactly What Your Partner Is Feeling

New research shows the cues to reading the emotions of the people in your life.

George Rudy/Shutterstock
Source: George Rudy/Shutterstock

Wouldn’t it be great if you could automatically read the emotions of the important people in your life? How nice to know, without their telling you, whether they’re sad or happy, scared or calm, angry or pleased. You could adjust your own reactions to their feeling state without having to exchange a word, and you would almost never have to deal with the misunderstandings that occur when people get confused about each other’s feelings. It is true that the better you know someone, the better able you are to decipher their facial cues, but this is not always a guarantee, even if you’ve lived with your partner for years.

The ability to detect emotions remains one of the most fascinating areas of research on interpersonal relations. Because there is no completely direct pathway from emotions to facial cues and then to the interpretation of those cues, researchers must devise clever ways to trace these complex connections. New technologies in the lab are making it possible to present endless variations on the basic human expressions with stimuli designed to overcome the traditional limitations in which a flesh-and-blood face’s attractiveness is confounded with the expressions. With computer graphics, the experimenter can manipulate only the most relevant features that contribute to the way participants interpret a face’s emotions.

Anderson University’s Robert Franklin, Jr., and colleagues (2019) noted that “the face gives people their best glimpse into the otherwise invisible mental and emotional processes that occur in others’ minds” (p. 209). Moreover, getting this glimpse is important, because “emotions convey functional information about others’ probable behavior toward a perceiver,” or “behavioral forecasts.” In other words, if you want to know what the person you’re dealing with is going to do, you’ll get the most information possible from that person’s facial expressions. The two cues that seem most germane to predicting people’s behavior, Franklin et al. argue, are what they call angularity and roundness. Angularity is a predictor of anger, they maintain, and roundness suggests joy.

Think now about what your face does when you are angry. You feel your eyebrows point downward and you may even turn the edges of your mouth downward too. Conversely, when you’re feeling happy or pleased, the lines in your face soften as you allow everything to relax. Your eyes may crinkle when you smile, but your eyebrows look less like arrows and more like commas. Moving beyond just what your face does, however, Franklin and his colleagues cite previous research supporting the idea that negative emotions, in general, are associated with lines and jagged edges, but that positive emotions are associated with curves and circles. Angularity is associated with the threat, they point out, and roundness with safety.

Moving on from the association between threat with angularity and safety with roundness, the downward-facing V of the eyebrows of the angry person plus the shape of an angry mouth would signal that you’re under threat. You’d regard the softer curves of the happy person as suggesting that nothing bad will happen to you.

To test the idea that facial angularity signals anger and roundness signals joy, Franklin and his fellow researchers designed computer-generated faces that blurred everything except the abstract angularity or roundness cues. An “X” shaped face, then, has downward-facing eyebrows and downward-turning edges of the mouth. A diamond-shaped face has as eyebrows the inverted “V” and as a mouth a smile that roughly fits the “V” pattern. The preliminary pilot findings showed that by superimposing these angles onto actual human faces depicting differing emotions, the faces that were intended to show anger indeed matched the “X” pattern, and those intended to show joy fit the diamond shape.

With this connection between angularity/roundness and anger/joy established, the research team then presented a sample of 33 undergraduates with a set of eight faces (four male and four female) showing either angry or joyful expressions. In one set of faces, the outward lines were filtered out, and in the other, the inward lines were filtered. The test of the hypothesis involved asking participants to rate the expressions shown in these faces, with the expectation being that participants would perform emotion judgments more quickly when the lines that were filtered matched the emotion depicted in the face. People took longer to judge the emotion of anger when some lines showing roundness were left in the filtered picture, and longer to judge joy when they could still see the X-shaped lines in the faces they were judging.

The final investigation tested how angularity and roundness would affect the judgments made of neutral faces. Using, once again, an undergraduate sample, the researchers were able to establish that even when the face in the picture had no overt expression, filtering the images to accentuate angularity or roundness led participants to interpret emotions like anger or joy, respectively.

From a theoretical perspective, the authors note that there could be adaptive reasons that people associate angularity with anger and roundness with joy. Returning to the idea that angularity poses a threat, Franklin and his collaborators suggest that these cues may be learned early in development. Angular — i.e., sharp — things hurt, but round things (for the most part) do not. You could drop a stone on your toe, and that would hurt, but you’re less likely to tear your skin with a stone than with a twig. Another possibility is that because round faces look younger and more babyish than angular faces, which reflect greater age and maturity, people feel less threatened by them. You are also more likely to regard as “cute” the soft, round features of a baby or young child. That image of “Hello Kitty” is one that people are drawn to for similar reasons.

To sum up, the findings have two implications. First, when you’re looking at other people’s faces, those V’s and X’s signal whether you’ve made them angry or happy. Second, look at your own facial expressions. Are you inadvertently looking angry when you really feel pleasure? Finding fulfillment in relationships with others relies heavily on the expression and reading of emotions. The Franklin et al. study shows how those emotions play out on your chief signaling device — your face.

References

Franklin, R. G., Jr., Adams, R. B., Jr., Steiner, T. G., & Zebrowitz, L. A. (2019). Reading the lines in the face: The contribution of angularity and roundness to perceptions of facial anger and joy. Emotion, 19(2), 209–218. doi: 10.1037/emo0000423

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