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.
Identifying people from video and photographs is a core task for a modern police force, and London – which led the world in implementing and using CCTV – has attempted to meet this need by developing a pool of 140 “police identifiers” made up of Metropolitan Police officers with a strong track record of making IDs from photographs. But who are these individuals? Are they really super-recognisers as the Met has claimed? True super-recognisers are usually identified by formal tests and their dramatic ability to recognise human faces outstrips typical performance to the same extent that many prosopagnosics (people with face-blindness) lag behind. Or, in identifying so many suspects, did the police identifiers just catch a string of lucky breaks? Addressing this through a battery of neuropsychological tests, Josh Davis and his UK-university collaborators scrutinise the scrutinisers in a new paper in Applied Cognitive Psychology. Continue reading “The Metropolitan Police’s elite super-recognisers are the real deal”→
The great American psychologist William James proposed that bodily sensations – a thumping heart, a sweaty palm – aren’t merely a consequence of our emotions, but may actually cause them. In his famous example, when you see a bear and your pulse races and you start running, it’s the running and the racing pulse that makes you feel afraid.
Consistent with James’ theory (and similar ideas put forward even earlier by Charles Darwin), a lot of research has shown that the expression on our face seems not only to reflect, but also to shape how we’re feeling. One of the most well-known and highly cited pieces of research to support the “facial feedback hypothesis” was published in 1988 and involved participants looking at cartoons while holding a pen either between their teeth, forcing them to smile, or between their lips, forcing them to pout. Those in the smile condition said they found the cartoons funnier.
Scientists are still struggling to understand the causes of autism. A difficulty bonding with others represents one of the core symptoms and has been the focus of several theories that try and explain exactly why these deficits come about.
One of the more prominent examples, the “broken mirror hypothesis”, suggests that an impaired development of the mirror neuron system (MNS) is to blame. First observed in monkeys, mirror neurons are more active when you perform a certain action and when you see someone else engage in the same behavior – for example, when you smile or when you see someone else smile.
This “mirroring” has been hypothesised to help us understand what others are feeling by sharing their emotional states, although this is disputed. Another behaviour that is thought to depend on an intact mirror neuron system is facial mimicry – the way that people spontaneously and unconsciously mimic the emotional facial expressions of others.
Interestingly, studies have shown that people with autism do not spontaneously mimic others’ facial expressions, which could explain why they often struggle to “read” people’s emotions or have trouble interacting socially. Some experts have claimed these findings lend support to “broken” mirroring in autism, but this has remained controversial. Now a study in Autism Research has used a new way to measure facial mimicry and the results cast fresh doubt on the idea that autism is somehow caused by a broken mirror neuron system. Continue reading “No, autistic people do not have a "broken" mirror neuron system – new evidence”→
Eyes shut tight, face contorted into a grimace. Are they ecstatic or anguished? Ignorant of the context, it can be hard to tell. Recent research that involved participants looking at images of the facial expressions of professional tennis players supported this intuition – participants naive to the context were unable to tell the difference between the winners and losers.
From a scientific perspective, the problem with the tennis study is that the findings might have been affected by the players’ physical exertion or their awareness of being on public display. To test the similarity of facial expressions of joy and pain more robustly, a new study in the journal Emotion has used videos taken from a much wider range of contexts.
Sofia Wenzler and her colleagues began by finding online videos of the ecstatic relatives of soldiers who’d just made a surprise return home. For comparison they found videos of witnesses caught up in real life terror attacks who were expressing intense negative emotion (none were actually harmed themselves).
The researchers took stills of the moment of peak emotional facial expression from the joyful and negative videos and presented them to 28 undergrad students. Naive to the context of the facial expressions, the students’ task was to rate them from 1 “most negative” to 9 “most positive”. On average, they rated the intense joy and intense anguish facial expressions negatively and to a similar extent. In other words, the students couldn’t tell the difference between the facial displays of intense pleasure and pain.
A second experiment involving children’s facial expressions produced largely similar results. This time, for the negative emotional displays, the researchers took stills from pranks shown on the Jimmy Kimmel late-night TV show, such as when children woke to discover their parents had eaten all their sweets earned through trick-or-treating. For children’s facial expressions of intense joy, the researchers found online videos of children receiving surprise treats, such as tickets to see their favourite pop star in concert.
Again, students naive to the context looked at and rated still images of the children’s facial expressions and again they rated intense joy negatively, although in this case not as negatively as intense pain (this might be because the contexts used in this experiment were not as momentous as those used in the first experiment that featured adults).
The findings from the two experiments contradict mainstream psychological theories of emotion, which predict that facial expressions of emotion should be most distinguishable at the opposite ends of the positive/negative spectrum. One explanation for this contradiction considered by the researchers is that in moments of extreme joy, people are actually experiencing negative emotion, for example through the evocation of negative memories. Another is that extreme joy prompts the expression of negative emotion as a way to restore emotional equilibrium. However, Wenzler and her team find both these possibilities unconvincing – for one thing, the equilibrium account predicts incorrectly that negative emotion should manifest in facial expressions of joy.
A matter on which the researchers remain silent is why, from an evolutionary perspective, humans have developed a tendency to express intense joy in a way that is perceived as indistinguishable from intense pain. This is pure speculation, but perhaps it is because for our ancestors, intense joy, like pain, was typically a moment of vulnerability, and it was adaptive for its facial expression to signal a need for support and protection.
_________________________________ Wenzler, S., Levine, S., van Dick, R., Oertel-Knöchel, V., & Aviezer, H. (2016). Beyond Pleasure and Pain: Facial Expression Ambiguity in Adults and Children During Intense Situations. Emotion DOI: 10.1037/emo0000185