Ohio State Researchers Identify Universal Facial Expression

Researchers have identified a single, universal facial expression that is interpreted across many cultures as the embodiment of negative emotion. It consists of a furrowed brow, pressed lips and raised chin, and because we make it when we convey negative sentiments, such as “I do not agree,” researchers are calling it the “not face.”

The look proved identical for native speakers of English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and American Sign Language (ASL).

The study, published in the journal Cognition, also reveals that our facial muscles contract to form the “not face” at the same frequency at which we speak or sign words in a sentence. That is, we all instinctively make the “not face” as if it were part of our spoken or signed language.

The researchers believe that this evidence of the “not face” to be unprecedented. They also believe that this evidence my help answer the big question: where did language come from? Researchers believe the evidence demonstrates a strong link between facial emotion and language.

For this new study, the researchers hypothesized that if a universal “not face” existed, it was likely to be combination of three basic facial expressions that are universally accepted to indicate moral disagreement: anger, disgust and contempt. Why focus on negative expressions? According to the researchers, Charles Darwin believed that the ability to communicate danger or aggression was key to human survival long before we developed the ability to talk. So the researchers suspected that if any truly universal facial expressions of emotion exist, then the expression for disapproval or disagreement would be the easiest to identify.

Researchers hope to identify the facial expressions that go along with other grammatical markers, including positive ones. Though think the work may take decades as no expression stands out quite like the “not face”.