“Update: On Twitter, some researchers argued, reasonably in my view, that I wasn’t quite sceptical enough in relating these findings. See the update at the end of this post for more details.”
If you wanted a poster child for the replication crisis and the controversy it has unleashed within the field of psychology, it would be hard to do much better than Fritz Strack’s findings. In 1988, the German psychologist and his colleagues published research that appeared to show that if your mouth is forced into a smile, you become a bit happier, and if it’s forced into a frown, you become a bit sadder. He pulled this off by asking volunteers to view a set of cartoons (paper ones, not animated) while holding a pen in their mouth, either with their teeth (forcing their mouth into a smile), or with their lips (forcing a frown), and to then use the pen in this position to rate how amused they were by the cartoons. The smilers were more amused, and the frowners less so – and best of all, they mostly didn’t discern the true purpose of the experiment, eliminating potential placebo-effect explanations.
This basic idea, that our facial expressions can feed back into our psychological state and behavior, goes back at least as far as Darwin and William James, but “facial feedback”, as it is known, had never been demonstrated in such an elegant and rigorous-seeming manner. Over time, this style of experiment was replicated and expanded upon, and soon it came to be considered a true blockbuster, so famous it found its ways into psychology textbooks, as well as popular books and articles citing it as an example of the unexpectedly subtle ways our bodies and environments can affect us psychologically. Often, facial feedback has been popularised along the lines of Maybe you can smile your way to happiness!, which added an irresistible self-help element that likely helped spread the idea. Either way, it seemed like a genuinely safe and solid psychological finding. That changed rather abruptly in 2016.
Now a team led by Sarah Ketay at the University Hartford have shown how this absorption of friends into our self-concept can manifest at a visual level, affecting our ability to distinguish their faces from our own. Writing in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Ketay’s team said “The present research supports the idea that close others are processed preferentially and may overlap with the self.”
You’re at a ten-pin bowling alley with some friends, you bowl your first ball – and it’s a strike. Do you instantly grin with delight? Not according to a study of bowlers, who smiled not at a moment of triumph but rather when they pivoted in their lanes, to look at their fellow bowlers.
That study provided the earliest evidence for a controversial hypothesis, the Behavioural Ecology View (BECV) of facial displays, outlined in detail in a new opinion piece in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Carlos Crivelli at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK and Alan Fridlund at the University of California, Santa Barbara, put forward the case that facial displays are not universal, “pre-wired” expressions of emotion – a concept supported by 80 per cent of emotion researchers in a recent poll – but are flexible tools for influencing the behaviour of other people.
In the adverts for anti-ageing skin products, everyone is smiling, positively blooming with youthfulness. A canny move by the marketeers you might think – after all, past research has found most of us believe smiling makes people look younger. It’s just that actually, it doesn’t. It makes you look older. That’s according to a new paper in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review that explores an intriguing mismatch between our beliefs and perceptions.
What can we tell about someone from their face? Their favoured facial expressions can hint at their temperament, the weathering of their skin at their life history, their facial hair and makeup at their aesthetic taste. But now, new research in the journal Attitudes and Social Cognition suggests that we can also intuit their names, because a person’s given name influences their facial appearance in adult life. On the face of it (sorry) this is hard to believe, but the case, made across eight studies, is based on plenty of careful evidence, and also proposes a plausible explanation.
Scientists are increasingly encouraged to communicate directly with non-experts, through newspaper and TV interviews, science festivals, online videos, and other channels. But the quality of their research or ideas alone is not enough to guarantee interest or support, suggests a series of new studies in PNAS. The way the general public responds is also influenced by the scientist’s facial appearance, an important finding, say the researchers, because the public communication of scientific findings shapes beliefs, opinion and policy.
It’s a stereotype that has improved a little over the years but still persists: women are more emotionally expressive than men. Like Bridget Jones, we constantly reveal exactly how we’re feeling, while men, Mark Darcy-like, look on impassively.
Although prior evidence suggests that women really do smile more often, a new study, published in PLOS One, has considered a greater variety of facial expressions, and it finds that the gender pattern is more complex, with some emotions displayed more by men than women. Arguably, this work helps to reveal not only differences in the emotional signals men and women send to others, but also differences in the emotions that we feel.
Vacant job roles should be filled on the candidate’s skills, experience and knowledge, not their identity. But that means dodging our deeply held stereotypes, such as men being a natural fit for decision-making roles like management and women for care-giving professions. Evidence suggests this also applies to sexual orientation, meaning, for instance, that CVs that indicate the candidate is homosexual (by mentioning college experience in a group promoting gay rights, for example) are likely to be seen by recruiters as a better match for care-giving roles. New research from the Journal of Applied Psychology adds to this, suggesting that merely looking gay is enough for a candidate to be treated in a biased way by recruiters.
Life would be awfully confusing if we weren’t able to recognise familiar faces. It’s a skill most of us take for granted, and we rarely stop to consider the impressive cognitive wizardry involved. But some of us are better at it than others: in the last decade or so it’s become apparent that around two per cent of the population are born with a severe face-recognition impairment (known as congenital prosopagnosia), that there is a similar proportion of “super-recognisers” with unusually exceptional face-recognition skills, and that the rest of us are on a spectrum in between.
Where do you think your abilities lie? A new study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that, unless you are severely impaired at face-recognition, you probably don’t have much insight into this question. When participants were confronted with the question: “Overall, from 1-‘very poor’ to 9-‘very good’, how would you describe your general ability to recognise faces?”, the research found that most participants’ answers bore no relation to their performance on a range of lab-based face-recognition tests.
Experiments suggest that telling if two unfamiliar faces are the same or different is no easy task. Such research has sometimes presented participants with full body shots, has more commonly used cropped shots of people’s heads, but almost never placed the faces in a formal context, such as on a photographic ID card. But these are the situations in which face-to-photo matching is most relevant, when a shop assistant squints at a driver’s license before selling alcohol to a twitchy youth, or an emigration official scrutinises passports before their holders pass ports. Moreover, it’s plausible that the task is harder when juggling extra information, something already found in the realm of fingerprint matching, where biographical information can lead to more erroneous matches because it triggers observer prejudices. A new article in Applied Cognitive Psychology confirms these fears, suggesting that our real-world capacity to spot fakes in their natural setting is even worse than imagined.