Reading at Face Value: Analyzing Facial Expressions in Others

Aaron K

The Garden Variety…

How do we know what others are feeling? How do we gauge our audience in social interactions? Paul Ekman, a prominent psychological researcher, suggests that it’s all in our facial expressions. Even if you’re the type of person who keeps your emotions to yourself, Ekman’s research shows that humans are psychologically disposed to show our emotions on our faces.  Analyzing facial expressions in others, thus, is one way in which we empathize with other’s emotions. And it’s not always something you’re conscious of. Consequently, we don’t wear our hearts on our sleeves; we display them right on our faces!

The human face has almost 100 different muscles responsible for shaping the garden variety of emotions we experience on any given day. As far as we know, one human brain is capable of experiencing a limitless amount of emotions in number; how then is another brain so quick and accurate to interpret emotions observed other’s faces? Are we evolutionarily programmed to relate well to each other, or are we all just really sensitive people? While it’s nice to believe the latter, there’s clearly a more interesting and pertinent question here: what is that black-box mechanism in our brains that allows us to so quickly and accurately identify emotions in others?

Some researchers believe that facial mimicry, a complex iteration of the “monkey-see-monkey” theory (or the chameleon effect for the psychologically savvy), is responsible for our predisposition towards detecting emotion in others. By watching others make particular facial expressions in varying situations, we essentially ‘mimic’ their physiology, learning to make those same faces when we experience similar circumstances. Most of the impressions, researches claim, take place at a very young age, when we are first learning about the world.

Therefore, if an adult sees an expression on another’s face, he has been conditioned to subconsciously categorize it, associate that expression with an emotion that he learned through mimicry, then (finally) pass judgment about what emotion he thinks the other is feeling. The facial mimicry thesis claims we do all this every time we look at someone else. And it doesn’t quite stop there; the power and ubiquity of the subconscious interpretation of others emotions is part and parcel of our daily lives.

This means that every stranger you meet, every person you exchange glances with, and every face you make eye-contact with conjures associative memories in your unconscious mind, while your brain jumps to various conclusions about what that face is trying to tell you. In this case, Sartre was wrong; we’re not a world of individuals doomed to exist in constant isolation under a milieu of indifference. On the contrary, every time you catch someone’s eye, you can rest assured that you’ve had an affect (albeit unconscious) on their day.

Of course, there is no firm consensus in the behavioral community as to how we process emotion in others, nor is the theory that facial states mirror mental states universally accepted among psychologists.

Opposing psychological camps, led by social ethologists like Alan Fridlund of the University of Santa Barbara, polemicizes facial mimicry theory, claiming that there is no one-to-one correspondence between facial expressions and emotions.

With this striking academic tension and evidence supporting both arguments, are we just left to wonder whether or not our facial expressions are tell-tale signs of what we’re thinking? A recent study by Tufts University takes an interesting angle to this approach. It’s title: Facial Mimicry is Not Necessary to Recognize Emotion. This research attacks an old question with a new angle: “Psychologists have long been interested in how people ‘mind-read’ the emotional states of others. Recently, embodied simulation theories have sought to explain emotional mindreading by suggesting that people recognize emotion in others by simulating the emotion experience within themselves …. But what happens when someone cannot mimic the facial expressions of others?

The Tufts study targets individuals with Moebius Syndrome, a rare congenital neurological disorder which is characterized by facial and ocular paralysis. In short, these people cannot make facial expression. And so the study begs the question, can they detect emotions in others? If they can’t, then facial mimicry appears to be a confirmed phenomenon. If they can… well then our theory of facial mimicry needs to be refined.

The study utilized 37 adults with Moebius Syndrome matched with 37 controlled participants who all participated in an Internet-based facial expression recognition task. The report, boasting the largest sample size for people with Moebius in academic history, found that a subject’s accuracy at interpreting facial expression was not related to the extent of their abilities to produce facial expressions. In fact, people with facial paralysis were, in many cases, better at recognizing emotional expressions in subjects than their control counterparts.

It would appear that the proverb “takes one to know one” is (at best) psychosocially misdirected. While this research does not conclusively explain how healthy humans perceive and interpret facial expressions in others, it does seem to detract from the validity of theories revolving around facial mimicry, or at the very least suggest that humans who are unable to make facial expressions are not devoid from participating in human emotion and recognizing it in others.

A New York Times article, which followed Kathleen Bogart, a lead researcher in the study who also happens to suffer Moeibus, suggested that the upshot of this research could forge the way for groundbreaking advancements in teaching basic social skills, especially to those whom socializing doesn’t come easily. A social explanation of how to relate to others would be an invaluable therapeutic tool in treating socially-awkward disorders such as anxiety, autism, Aspergers syndrome, palsy, and other cases of paralysis.

I’d like to think that there’s more to understanding people than merely reading the story on their face. I’d like to think that we aren’t slaves to our psychology; that we can hide things from the judgmental brains around us.  At the same time I wonder if this is just naïve thinking; if we’re so affected by those around us, and what they look like, there’s really no such thing as emotional privacy!

As researchers further nuance and dissect the emotional mechanism in human exchange, we get closer and closer to a theory of ‘teachable expression’ or ‘teachable emotion.’  Is there a correct ratio of muscular movement to explain a genuine smile? Yes. What about a frown? Not yet. What about a puzzled look? I guess we’ll just have to wonder.

26 Consumer Emotions

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