When to scowl

Psychologists have tended to study facial emotional expressions outside of their real-life social context. But in reality, of course, our facial expressions are usually accompanied by what we, or someone else, is saying or doing. A new study by Shlomo Hareli and colleagues acknowledges this, investigating the effects of sad, friendly and angry expressions in either a clear-cut complaint scenario versus a more ambiguous situation. The results show that scowling, or showing your anger, can be effective when the social situation is ambiguous, presumably because it helps convey the sincerity of your feelings.

Hundreds of participants watched videos of actors complaining about a fridge or a poster. The complaint was either clear-cut (the fridge hadn’t been fixed as requested, or the wrong colour had been used on the poster) or it was less justified (the technician hadn’t anticipated a fridge problem that emerged later, or the poster text was considered too small, even though size hadn’t been specified in advance). The complaints were delivered with an angry facial expression, a sad expression or with a friendly, smiling demeanour.

An interesting interaction emerged – the participants rated less-justified complaints as more credible when delivered with an angry face, rather than a sad face or friendly face, but this was reversed for the well-justified, clear-cut scenario. It’s possible that a scowl in a clear-cut scenario comes across as aggressive, whereas it conveys sincerity in a more ambiguous situation.

“The present findings support the notion that when the emotion expression adds new information to the verbal message it can affect the persuasiveness of the overall message and thereby credibility,” the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgHareli, S., Harush, R., Suleiman, R., Cossette, M., Bergeron, S., Lavoie, V., Dugay, G., & Hess, U. (2009). When scowling may be a good thing: The influence of anger expressions on credibility. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39 (4), 631-638 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.573

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.