The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but the expression on your face records each of your fleeting emotional states. As feelings of worry, excitement, and positivity pass through your mind, they tell your facial muscles how to respond. People with a good poker face can hide those feelings, but for the average person, there’s some leakage.
Think of the conversations you’ve had with people whose faces and gestures were very expressive. They relate a story to you about some problem they encountered, and as they do, you see frown lines form, their eyes widen with excitement, their mouth turns downward—and maybe there’s a flash of teeth. Conversely, such people tell funny stories with similar animation, but in these cases, their mouth is in more or less a constant smile.
What about when people’s faces are at rest? What can you infer then about their feelings? Perhaps you’ve caught yourself inadvertently in the mirror or the reflection of a window when you were in the middle of a thoughtful, contemplative episode. Were you surprised to see that you looked angry when you weren’t?
This common situation of catching a glimpse of yourself while at rest and looking angry has inspired the term, for women, “Resting Bitch Face” or “RBF.” Jessica Bennett, writing in the Fashion and Style section of the New York Times, introduced me to this term. The reason it’s called “bitch” face is no accident—it’s intended to refer only to women.
According to the RBF theory, if a woman is caught in contemplation (i.e., not smiling), people are more likely to think she’s angry than if a man shows the exact same facial expression. A woman who doesn’t smile is assumed to be in a bad mood because, so the theory goes, women are expected to smile at all times. Through cultural conditioning, women have learned that in order for people to like them, they have to wear a smile even if they don’t think anything is particularly funny. Men who look thoughtful are seen as serious; women with the same expression are perceived as unfriendly and unlikeable.
We already know that men are more likely to stand in poses that convey power and women to stand in a deferential way so as not to seem threatening to others. Now we have to add the face to the equation. A man in the “high V” (high power) stance can frown all he likes and it won’t affect how much people like or respect them. In fact, they might respect him more. Women in many circles have to plop a smiling face on top of their more submissively posed bodies to garner the affection and positive regard of the people around them.
I investigated how much our faces reflect our social standing to determine whether it holds merit. According to a Psychological Science study by the University of Glasgow’s Daniel Gill and colleagues (2014), we do communicate power and dominance through our facial expressions. Using a highly sophisticated face-simulating program, Gill and his team conducted a series of experiments in which they asked a small number of observers (6 men and 6 women in each) to rate the dominance, trustworthiness, and attractiveness of faces portraying different expressions. The expressions reflected traits, not emotions, and thus the experiment tested a somewhat novel area of facial perception research.
Here is the short version of how Gill et al. simulated each of the expressions they asked participants to rate:
- High dominance—wrinkling the nose and snarling the lips
- Low dominance—raising and lowering the brows, showing dimples, stretching the lips, and lowering the chin
- High trustworthiness—raising the brows, deepening the lines between the nose and mouth, and smiling
- Low trustworthiness—narrowing the eyes, wrinkling the nose, dilating the nostrils, frowning, and parting the lips
- High attractiveness—raising and lowering the brows, smiling and pulling the lips back in a slight smile
- Low attractiveness—tightening the eyelids, wrinkling the nose, and pulling the lips open and back
If you want to practice these expressions, or have a friend practice them, you can get a sense of how even slight variations of these combinations can alter a person’s entire facial expression, and what that expression communicates.
According to Gill and his coauthors, it's much easier to put on an expression that communicates a changeable social trait than one that alters how people perceive your inherent attractiveness. In their analysis of what movements it took for the faces to model the three traits, they found that attractiveness could not be increased or decreased:
“Of the three traits studied, attractiveness is the most influential for reproduction and the most difficult to camouflage. Humans are thus condemned to bear the social consequences of the inherited attractiveness of their faces.” (p. 1085)
Attractiveness as a social trait is obviously highly valued in Western society, as evidenced by the vast sums that people spend on hair and makeup. But you can’t change your basic appearance as quickly as you can the air about yourself that you communicate to others.
Unfortunately, the Gill study didn’t examine gender differences in facial perception—all the faces they used were of men. There’s no way of knowing, then, how women’s expressions of high dominance would be regarded, compared to men’s. There was also no crossover attempted among dominance and attractiveness. But if the RBF theory is true, women looking dominant should be perceived as less attractive than men with similar expressions.
There are ways you can alter the way your traits are perceived. If you feel you need to put on the guise of someone who is trustworthy, wipe off that frown, but if you want others to follow your lead, it’s the smile that has to go. In the best of all possible worlds, the same rules of social trait perception will apply to men and women. Let’s hope that with awareness of these social biases, we can achieve this new form of gender equity.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015
Gill, D., Garrod, O. B., Jack, R. E., & Schyns, P. G. (2014). Facial movements strategically camouflage involuntary social signals of face morphology. Psychological Science, 25(5), 1079-1086. doi:10.1177/0956797614522274