Ah, resting bitchface. Remember resting bitchface? If it seems like people have been arguing about RBF for years, it’s because they have. RBF, for the uninitiated, is a face combining disgust, better-than-you snobbery, and boredom, a sort of “I have better things to do than deal with your silly earthly quibbles” look. It’s been defended as a legitimate expression, criticized as an obstacle to female advancement in the workplace, and seen as a sign of the times.
Now behavioral scientists say they have identified the unique elements that add up to the expression. Jason Rogers and Abbe Macbeth, both of research firm Noldus Information Technology, recently took on RBF with a scientific, academic angle on the question: What is the difference between an expressionless face and a repulsive one? In other words, what makes a person’s otherwise neutral face register as RBF to another person? “We wanted this to be fun and kind of tongue-in-cheek, but also to have legitimate scientific data backing it up,” Macbeth told the Washington Post.
Rogers and Macbeth used Noldus’s FaceReader, a software that utilizes a directory of 10,000 human faces to identify facial expressions. The FaceReader scrutinizes a face and maps 500 points on it, then analyzes it. Based on its extensive catalogue, the FaceReader is able to assign one of eight human emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, contempt, and — the one connected with RBF — “neutral.” For the neutral baseline, Rogers and Macbeth had FaceReader look at some blank faces, which it was able to do with 97 percent accuracy. The remaining 3 percent had tinges of sadness, for example, or a dash of disgust.
The researchers then plugged a cadre of the usual RBF suspects — including Kristen Stewart and Kanye West — and found that the rate of other emotions detected doubled to 6 percent, much of it from FaceReader picking up on “contempt,” detected through subtle facial cues: a slight lip-snarl, or the slightest squinting of the eyes and burrowing of brows.
There are two intriguing conclusions from this experiment of a machine reading facial expressions. One is that FaceReader senses something off-putting about some otherwise neutral visages. In other words, our human tendency to classify someone with a sullen and miffed expression as possessing RBF isn’t necessarily off.
The second point: This is not a strictly female phenomenon. Discussions over RBF may have launched based on how a certain population of female celebrities would show up on the red carpet refusing to flash their pearly whites for cameras, but Macbeth and Rogers found that the expression can be detected equally in both males and females. This means that classifying RBF as a female-dominant expression of bitchiness is actually quite wrong, and probably a reflection of societal expectations of women. Here’s Macbeth:
That [smiling] is something that’s expected from women far more than it’s expected from men, and there’s a lot of anecdotal articles and scientific literature on that. So RBF isn’t necessarily something that occurs more in women, but we’re more attuned to notice it in women because women have more pressure on them to be happy and smiley and to get along with others.
Curious if you, too, might have a neutral face tinged with contempt? Macbeth and Rogers are eager to accept your most neutral face to run through FaceReader so that you can know whether you’re just expressionless or exude contempt.