Category: Faces

Scientists’ facial appearance affects our perception of their work

2016 Winter TCA Tour - Day 15
Participants were more interested in the work of attractive scientists, but assumed it was lower quality

By Emma Young

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.

Continue reading “Scientists’ facial appearance affects our perception of their work”

Do women really show their emotions more than men?

By Emma Young

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.

Continue reading “Do women really show their emotions more than men?”

Job recruiters may be swayed by signs of our sexuality revealed in our faces

Human resource concept, Young businessman holding white billboarBy Alex Fradera

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.

Continue reading “Job recruiters may be swayed by signs of our sexuality revealed in our faces”

Think you’re good with faces? In fact, you probably don’t know much about your own face-recognition skills

6860363223_718ae3ee16_bBy Christian Jarrett

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.

Continue reading “Think you’re good with faces? In fact, you probably don’t know much about your own face-recognition skills”

Bad news for passport control: face-matching is harder than we realised

Passport Officer at Airport SecurityBy Alex Fradera

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.

Continue reading “Bad news for passport control: face-matching is harder than we realised”

The Metropolitan Police’s elite super-recognisers are the real deal

Back view of metropolitan police officerBy Alex Fradera

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”

No reason to smile – Another modern psychology classic has failed to replicate

Image via Quentin Gronau/Flickr showing how participants were instructed to hold the pen

By Christian Jarrett

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.

But now an attempt to replicate this modern classic of psychology research, involving 17 labs around the world and a collective subject pool of 1894 students, has failed. “Overall, the results were inconsistent with the original result,” the researchers said.  Continue reading “No reason to smile – Another modern psychology classic has failed to replicate”

No, autistic people do not have a "broken" mirror neuron system – new evidence

By guest blogger Helge Hasselmann

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”

Facial expressions of intense joy and pain are indistinguishable

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).

Example stimuli taken from Wenzler et al 2016.
1=positive 2=negative. 

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

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

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Psychologists have identified the length of eye contact that people find most comfortable

It’s a dilemma extremely familiar to anyone with social anxiety – for how long to make eye contact before looking away? The fear is that if you only ever fix the other person’s gaze for very brief spells then you’ll look shifty. If you lock on for too long, on the other hand, then there’s the risk of seeming creepy. Thankfully a team of British researchers has now conducted the most comprehensive study of what people generally regard as a comfortable length of eye contact.

For the research published in Royal Society Open Science, Nicola Binetti and his colleagues recruited nearly 500 visitors to the London Science Museum from 56 nations – 224 of them were male and their ages ranged from 11 to 79 years, with an average age of 30.

The participants’ main task was to sit close to a monitor and watch a series of video clips of the same actor or actress making eye contact with them for various durations between 100ms (a tenth of a second) and 10,300ms (just over ten seconds). The particpiants’ pupil dilation was recorded while they watched the brief clips, and after each clip they had to say whether the length of eye contact felt too long or too short for comfort. Each participant watched 40 clips of the same actor or actress, but there were 8 actors and actresses used in the study, all of them Caucasian. The participants also filled out a personality questionnaire and they rated the actor or actress who’d appeared in their clips for various characteristics including attractiveness and threat.

On average, the participants were most comfortable with eye contact that lasted just over three seconds. Looking at the distribution of preferences, the vast majority of participants preferred a duration between two and five seconds. No-one preferred eye contact durations of less than a second or longer than nine seconds.

The actors and actresses appeared against a green background
and glanced downwards between episodes of eye contact. 

Surprisingly, there were no links between the participants’ personality profiles and their preferences for length of eye contact. There were also no major effects of participant age or gender – the only exception being that among male participants looking at clips featuring an actress, the older the man, the more likely he was to prefer longer eye contact. In terms of the participant ratings of the actor or actress, only threat was relevant, with participants who rated their actor or actress as more threatening tending to prefer shorter eye contact durations.

The researchers were interested in the participants’ pupil dilation because it’s a marker of physiological arousal. They found that participants who showed greater pupil dilation in response to the video clips tended to prefer longer eye contact. The meaning of this finding is unclear – negative emotions usually elicit more arousal, so we might have expected the opposite result. The researchers speculated that the greater physiological arousal in this context might be traceable to a rapid, automatic form of face processing that takes place in subcortical areas of the brain, and that “activity within this early eye contact processing stage is enhanced in participants who favour longer periods of direct gaze and who presumably feel more comfortable in engaging in a communicative link.”

A major issue with the study is of course that it used pre-recorded video clips rather than a live interaction. Readers will rightly wonder just how fair it is to extrapolate from this setup to the real life situation of two people in conversation, where both parties are involved in the dance of eye contact. In fact, the lack of realism in the study may explain why no association was found between personality and preferred gaze duration. However, the researchers point out that their finding of an average preferred eye contact length of 3.3 seconds tallies with some preliminary studies published in the 1970s that did involve participants interacting in pairs.


Binetti, N., Harrison, C., Coutrot, A., Johnston, A., & Mareschal, I. (2016). Pupil dilation as an index of preferred mutual gaze duration Royal Society Open Science, 3 (7) DOI: 10.1098/rsos.160086

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

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