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.
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.
- Why Typical Preschool Crafts Are a Total Waste of Time
- A Psychologist Explains How to Revive a Dead Friendship
- Can You Blend in Anywhere? Or Are You Always the Same You?
- This Workout Might Help Reverse the Aging Process, According to a New Study
- How Neuroscientists Explain the Mind-Clearing Magic of Running