Thrill of Victory or Agony of Defeat?

by Translation Guy on December 3, 2012

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.


  1. Facial expressions are a poor gauge of the reality of situations.

  2. Nicole says:

    I think facial expressions, even without intense emotion clouding the situation, are hard to read, and microexpressions would be ridiculously hard to catch. How many funerals or weddings with people in the crowd with unreadable expressions, and what about just everyday conversations where you are cueless about what the other person is thinking or feeling.

  3. Did we really need at University study to tell us that a photo of someone is hard to read for positive/negative emotion when someone is just screaming?

    • Ken says:

      Someone thought we did, Siboney.

  4. Gladys says:

    Well it’s all just shouting and screaming at the end of it, regardless which extreme you’re at.

    • Ken says:

      Context is all.

  5. I think tennis is a hard sport to go by since it is so exhausting and games end in a split second that usually results to both paties giving into the pain their bodies are in. Basketball, football, baseball where the ball hangs in the air and the team has time to watch and react, where as tennis the pace of the ball makes this harder.

  6. Chaarlotte says:

    Sports is a hard way to measure this, when factoring in joy or sorrow of the result, because you have to account for the physical toll on the participant.

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