New research has found that body language, not someone’s facial expression, provides better clues as to whether a person is undergoing a positive or negative experience.
Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, New York University and Princeton University say that when presented with photographs of just faces of people undergoing highly intense experiences, viewers were baffled as to whether the experience was positive or negative.
The researchers presented test groups with photos of dozens of highly intense facial expressions in a variety of real life emotional situations.
For example, in one study they compared emotional expressions of professional tennis players winning or losing a point. These pictures are ideal because the stakes in such games are extremely high from an economic and prestige perspective, according to the researchers.
The researchers showed different versions of the pictures to three groups of participants: The full picture with the face and body; the body with the face removed; and the face with the body removed.
The participants could easily tell apart the losers from winners when they rated the full picture or the body alone, but they were at chance level when rating the face alone, according to the researchers.
In what researchers called an ironic note, the participants who viewed the full picture with the face and body were convinced that it was the face that revealed the emotional impact. The researchers named this effect “illusory valence,” reflecting the fact that participants said they saw clear valence — either a positive or negative emotion — in what was a non-diagnostic face.
In an additional study, the researchers asked people to examine a broader range of real-life intense faces. These images included intense positive situations, such as joy (seeing one’s house after a lavish makeover), pleasure (experiencing an orgasm), and victory (winning a critical tennis point), as well as negative situations, such as grief (reacting at a funeral), pain (undergoing a nipple/naval piercing), and defeat (losing a critical tennis point).
Again, participants were unable to tell from the faces whether it was a positive or negative situation.
To further demonstrate how ambiguous intense faces are, the researchers “planted” faces on bodies expressing positive or negative emotion. The participants then determined emotional valence of the same face on different bodies by the body, flipping from positive to negative depending on the body with which they appeared.
“These results show that when emotions become extremely intense, the difference between positive and negative facial expression blurs,” said psychologist Dr. Hillel Aviezer of the Psychology Department of the Hebrew University, who led the study with Drs. Yaacov Trope of New York University and Alexander Todorov of Princeton University.
“The findings challenge classic behavioral models in neuroscience, social psychology and economics, in which the distinct poles of positive and negative valence do not converge.”
“From a practical-clinical perspective, the results may help researchers understand how body/face expressions interact during emotional situations,” he continued. “For example, individuals with autism may fail to recognize facial expressions, but perhaps if trained to process important body cues, their performance may significantly improve.”
The study was published in the journal Science.