Facial expression doesn’t count when things get intense. It’s all about the body language.
My favorite language to translate is body language. I think it’s because it does not involve spelling. I am a really bad speller, as some of you may have noticed. It is certainly an occupational disability in the profession of translation.
Most of us are intuitively and immediately aware of the meaning of every gesture and expression of those we meet. But social scientists have progressed more slowly in understanding the ABCs behind this critical channel of communication.
We’ve all seen the pictures and graphics of recognizable expressions — sometimes performed by professional actors, sometimes sketched in stick-figure fashion for quick and unambiguous comprehension. The problem is that these domestic depictions rarely have anything to do with the human emotions displayed in the wild, i.e., daily life.
Researcher Hillel Aviezer, a neuropsychologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, decided to test just how accurately people can read intense real-world facial expressions. And what he discovered is that taken alone, facial expression is a very poor clue to understanding the feelings of a person experiencing intense emotion. This is because when emotions get extreme, people undergoing fleeting peaks of intense joy, pain, anger or grief look more or less the same. “When you compare extreme pain to extreme pleasure, you really can’t tell them apart,” says Aviezer.
But few of us would have any difficulty in recognizing the difference between expressions of great joy and great sorrow. To find out how this is done, researchers showed photos of professional tennis players to 45 Princeton University students. Each tennis player had just won or lost an important match (see picture above) and the participants rated the players’ expressions from negative to positive on a scale from 1 to 9. One group looked at head-to-toe photos, the second group looked just at the bodies and the third group looked just at headshots. “Only the final group had trouble making the correct identification, suggesting that facial expression alone didn’t tell them whether the players were joyous or in despair,” reports Emily Underwood.
Then, relying on trusty Photoshop, the team switched winning heads with loser bodies. And again, to the participants, it was all in the posture. Researchers discovered that cues such as whether a hand was open or clenched were more important than facial expression. Yet, in a separate experiment, respondents reported that they felt more confident identifying people by facial expression alone. This underscores our bias toward faces, says Aviezer.
It’s interesting to note that an entire industry has been developed for the analysis of facial expressions in order to detect the liars among us. Paul Ekman claims that those fleeting facial expressions, which he calls micro-expressions, reveal in an instant (1/25 of a second) our most hidden thoughts.
So what do you think? Do facial expressions even matter, or is it all in the way we move our feet? Keep on dancing.