When we interact with others it is typically a back and forth based and reading cues and responding back. Smiles mean happiness—we smile in return. We think a frown must mean the other person is sad, so we attempt to make them feel better.
We believe in facial expressions so much some businesses are developing tools to rate their customers’ satisfaction through these expressions.
However new research suggest that not only are facial expressions not a reliable indicator of inner emotion but that they are completely unreliable, and we should never trust a face to tell us what someone is feeling.
Their research question was ‘can we really detect emotion from facial articulation?’
The researchers’ conclusion? No. We cannot.
The researchers focused on creating computer programs that analyze facial expressions. This allowed them to analyze the kinetics of muscle movement in the human face and compared those movements with a person’s emotions. The researchers found that their attempts to detect or define emotions based on a subject’s facial articulations were almost always wrong.
Researchers drew further deductions. First, that context and cultural background make a huge difference when it comes to facial expressions. They deduced that not everyone who smiles is happy and likewise not everyone who is happy smiles. They even took the extreme opinion that most people who do not smile are experiencing an average level of happiness.
Researchers noted, no one walks around all day with a smile on their face even if they are having a great day and are experiencing happiness for the bulk of it.
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”.