Do not rely on facial expressions for how people are feeling

Feb 20, 2020

ARISTOTLE RECKONED the face was a window onto a person’s mind. Cicero agreed. Two millennia on, facial expressions are still commonly thought to be a universally valid way to gauge other people’s feelings, irrespective of age, sex and culture. A raised eyebrow suggests confusion. A smile denotes happiness. A frown indicates sadness.

Or do they? An analysis of hundreds of research papers that examined the relationship between facial expressions and underlying emotions has uncovered a surprising conclusion: there is no good scientific evidence to suggest that there are such things as recognisable facial expressions for basic emotions which are universal across cultures. Just because a person is not smiling, the researchers found, does not mean that person is unhappy.

As Lisa Feldman Barrett, one of the authors of the study, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, told the AAAS meeting in Seattle, “We surprised ourselves”. Dr Feldman Barrett is a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and along with her colleagues she found that, on average, adults in urban cultures scowled when they were angry 30% of the time. Which meant that some 70% of the time they did not scowl when angry. Instead, they did something else with their faces....

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