It’s Almost Impossible to Tell a Joyful Face From an Anguished One

Photo: DRB Images LLC

The human face is full of mysteries waiting to be investigated — see: nope faceresting bitchfaceTed Cruz — but one of the stranger ones is this: Why, in our moments of intense happiness, do we look anguished?

It’s a pattern that psychologists investigated last year with a study on professional tennis players; people looking at shots of the athletes’ reactions during matches, they discovered, had a hard time distinguishing between the winners and the losers. As others have pointed out, those facial expressions may have been conveying other than genuine emotion — players may have adjusted their faces for the camera. But a small studyrecently published in the journal Emotion, this one using natural, spontaneous expressions, found the same thing: When it comes to extreme emotion, we’re pretty bad at knowing when scrunched-up eyes and an open mouth signal joy, and when they signal pain.

In one experiment, the study authors took videos of strongly emotional moments on both ends of the spectrum — for joy, soldiers returning home and surprising their loved ones, and for pain, people who had just witnessed terror attacks — and showed volunteers stills from the footage, without providing them any context for what they were looking at. The study subjects rated each image on a scale from one (most negative) to nine (most positive); the more intense the expression, the more negatively they rated it, regardless of the emotion it was actually depicting. (A second experiment with images of kids — either receiving presents, or learning that their parents had stolen their Halloween candy — yielded similar results).

The researchers didn’t offer much by way of explanation, though. As BPSResearch Digest reported:

The findings from the two experiments contradict mainstream psychological theories of emotion, which predict that facial expressions of emotion should be most distinguishable at the opposite ends of the positive/negative spectrum. One explanation for this contradiction considered by the researchers is that in moments of extreme joy, people are actually experiencing negative emotion, for example through the evocation of negative memories. Another is that extreme joy prompts the expression of negative emotion as a way to restore emotional equilibrium. However, Henzler and her team find both these possibilities unconvincing — for one thing, the equilibrium account predicts incorrectly that negative emotion should manifest in facial expressions of joy.

One theory that the BPS post proposed: “This is pure speculation, but perhaps it is because for our ancestors, intense joy, like pain, was typically a moment of vulnerability, and it was adaptive for its facial expression to signal a need for support and protection.” Which actually dovetails pretty nicely with what we know about that other weird quirk of emotional expression, the happy cry.

Can You Tell a Joyful Face From an Anguished One?