If You Are Bad at Reading Facial Expressions, Perhaps This Is Why

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There is a scene in the 2007 teen-pregnancy comedy Juno in which our protagonist, played by Ellen Page, complains to Michael Cera that his new girlfriend shot her an angry glare earlier that day. “I doubt that she gave you the stink eye,” Cera replies. “That’s just the way her face looks, you know? That’s just her face.”

This, somewhat improbably, is what I thought of when reading an interview in New Scientist with psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett about her new book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. (Drake Baer also spoke with Barrett for a Q&A published on Science of Us last week.) In the New Scientist piece, Barrett addresses an assumption many people hold — that facial expressions can be neatly matched to discrete emotions. A scowl always means anger, a curled upper lip is a dead giveaway for disgust, and so on. But it’s more complicated than it seems, Barrett argues, as many studies on facial expressions use a “psychological cheat”:

[E]xperimenters might force subjects to pick from a small set of emotion words when shown a facial expression, or unwittingly train subjects in the appropriate emotion concepts. My lab and others have shown that if you remove these cues, say, by asking subjects what a face means without a list of words to choose from, the whole effect falls apart.

To accurately “read” a face depends on so much more than the face itself. Context counts, one of those things that is at once totally obvious and incredibly easy to forget. In a 2014 piece for the New York Times, Barrett explained:

The psychologist Hillel Aviezer has done experiments in which he grafted together face and body photos from people portraying different emotions. When research subjects were asked to judge the feeling being communicated, the emotion associated with the body nearly always trumped the one associated with the face. For example, when shown a scowling (angry) face attached to a body holding a soiled object (disgust), subjects nearly always identified the emotion as disgust, not anger.

To Barrett, this serves as evidence for her argument that emotions are not hardwired, nor are they universal. Instead, they are concepts we construct, and then categorize, and then feel. And if emotions are psychologically and culturally constructed, then it follows that they would not be preprogrammed into our brains or our bodies — or, indeed, our faces. “You can certainly be expert at ‘reading’ other people,” Barrett acknowledged in that column for the Times. “But you … should know that the face isn’t telling the whole story.”

If You’re Bad At ‘Reading’ Faces, Perhaps This Is Why