Your Emotions May Be Easier to Read Than You Realize

New research shows why it may be hard for you to hide your true feelings.

Posted Jan 07, 2020

At the 2020 Golden Globes, actor Tom Hanks couldn't control his disgust at jokes made by host Ricky Gervais during the opening monologue about some highly sensitive Hollywood topics. His facial reactions have gone viral, and social media gurus quickly started turning those images into memes and gifs.

In a way, his reactions were understandable given that some of those jokes could be regarded as having cringe-worthy elements, especially to the crowd in the room. However, it’s surprising that an actor, whose profession depends on using his face and body to communicate emotions, wasn’t able to control his obvious disgust. Of course, it’s also possible that his reactions were intentional, designed to communicate to millions of viewers across the world exactly how he felt.

In either case, the example of Tom Hanks may be one to which you can relate. Have you ever let your feelings show in a way that you later came to regret? Were you the person in the audience who showed a negative reaction to a speaker’s words? If that speaker was a teacher or a boss, did your visible emotion lead to problems for you?

Alternatively, have you ever found that you couldn’t hide your feelings in a key situation? Did you buy a surprise gift for your partner only to reveal, through the smiles you tried to suppress, that you were up to something? Needless to say, when it's at work or at home, is it just too difficult for you to manage?

Research on nonverbal communication through the language of the face and body tends to focus on the way that people read the emotions of others, not how people's emotions reveal their own inner state of mind. One theory of emotions, the facial feedback hypothesis, proposes that the facial expressions you make influence your emotions (i.e. if you smile, you’ll feel happy). However, this approach doesn’t address that converse situation in which your emotions pour out through your eyes, mouth, and eyebrows despite your best efforts.

Some clues for learning how to better control your facial expressions come from a recent study by Michigan State University’s Reed M. Reynolds and colleagues (2019), who examined not the role of the face but that of the body in nonverbal communication of emotions. Indeed, if you look at the reaction of Tom Hanks in one of the many video clips, you’ll see that his bodily reactions further accentuate his apparent disgust. Again, this is another area in which actors hone their communication skills.

The study was based on the premise that “Inferences about others’ emotions are an essential part of social interaction … [which] serve as explanations for past and current behavior … guide our expectations toward future actions, and … shape our social responses” (p. 529). In other words, knowing how other people feel can influence the way you interact with them and, by inference, how others believe you feel can influence their interactions with you.

Bodily reactions, or expressive body movements (EBM), further contribute to this process but, as the MSU research team points out, their role in emotion recognition is a matter of debate. In part, this is because in everyday life (outside the lab) your face and body work in concert to communicate your feelings. Furthermore, as Reynolds et al. point out, there’s a difference between gauging the content vs. the intensity of how someone is feeling. In other words, when you’re reacting emotionally to a situation, you provide some cues about whether your reaction is pleasant or unpleasant, along with others that register the degree to which you’re experiencing these inner states.

To test the specific role of communicating emotions via the body, the MSU-led research team presented their participants with animations of human figures without the face in which the animations varied in both valence (positive or negative ) and level of intensity. The sample of 363 20-year-old undergraduates (57% female, 70% white) was divided into groups that rated either the strength or valence of emotions as depicted in these brief videos. In accordance with other studies the authors cite, participants seemed more primed to detect negative rather than positive emotions. EBM’s of both angry and happy expressions were more likely to be perceived as negative/angry than as positive/happy. The authors concluded from this finding that “people are more sensitive to negative cues when recognizing emotion through body language” (p. 541).

The second major finding to emerge from the study was that, consistent with prior research, the more intense the EBM became, the more difficult it was for participants to judge the positivity or negativity of the emotion. Happy expressions as shown in the video clips of the human figures, became even more ambiguous as the level of bodily reaction increased. The stronger the reaction you portray, then, the harder it is for others to figure out whether you’re happy or sad. In what is called “activation distortion,” people’s ability to process emotional signals from EBM’s breaks down as the person they’re watching become increasingly extreme in their reaction.

Returning now to the question of how you can control the impression you make on others of how you’re feeling, the Reynolds et al. findings suggest that you pay attention to your body, not just your face. The body contains its own cues that speak on their own about your inner state. When you’re in actual situations, all nonverbal and verbal channels are readily available to the people observing you. Make sure that they act in concert, so that if you're trying to hide your feelings, don't let your arms and legs give you away. Your words can provide another "tell" about your inner state, so try to stay in a verbal neutral zone.

To sum up, there’s an art to communicating your emotional reactions through your face and body. If you don’t want your face to give you away, keep in mind that you’ll also have to ensure that your body does its part as well. Fulfillment in relationships involves the interplay of emotions and words. You can avoid sending confusing signals if you use both to your advantage.

Facebook image: Jack Frog/Shutterstock

References

Reynolds, R. M., Novotny, E., Lee, J., Roth, D., & Bente, G. (2019). Ambiguous bodies: The role of displayed arousal in emotion [mis]perception. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. doi:10.1007/s10919-019-00312-3