New study explains why you’re bad at reading people’s faces

Why does it look like your coworkers are always mad at you? If you have trouble interpreting your colleagues’ resting neutral face, science now says that the answer may have more to do with your childhood upbringing than your coworkers’ facial expressions.

A new study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that people who grew up with fighting families have trouble reading neutral facial expressions. They see hostility when there is none, conditioned by a lifetime of adults yelling, viewing seemingly neutral facial expressions as a potential threat.

‘Resting neutral faces’ harder to read for people who grew up around conflict

Witnessing family conflict leaves a lasting impression on children’s abilities to interpret behavior in other adults. “Even forms of adversity that are less severe than maltreatment and neglect have substantial implications for emotion processing, particularly for children with shy traits,” the study cautioned.

When researchers showed 9- to 11-year-olds photographs of adult actors portraying anger, happiness, and neutrality, the children who answered affirmatively to statements like, “My parents get really mad when they argue,” had the hardest time correctly identifying neutral expressions in people’s faces. The children with high-conflict families could correctly interpret obviously happy and angry faces but got stumped with neutral, ambiguous faces.

Why? The researchers suggest that it is because neutral faces do not communicate as much vital threat information.

“Angry interactions could be a cue for them to retreat to their room,” Alice Schermerhorn, the study’s author, told the New York Times. “By comparison, neutral interactions might not offer much information, so children may not value them and therefore may not learn to recognize them.”

Your inability to read faces can be fixed

But if you’re an adult who can see danger in a person’s faces when there is none, there’s good news. This social conditioning you may have learned as a child can be unlearned as an adult.

Start with teaching yourself to not jump to conclusions that are not warranted by facts. Instead of assuming your coworker is angry with you when they do not smile, assume the best of intentions. In his book “When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life,” cognitive behavioral psychologist David D. Burns outlines how you can stop these kinds of cognitive distortions from taking over your life. It starts with identifying that you have them. When you lack data about how someone else feels, seek it out instead of relying on your own faulty data.

“Of course, sometimes a real conflict does exist, and you may need to talk things over with the other person to clear the air,” Burns writes in his book. “But sometimes the problem exists only in your head. Instead of making assumptions about how other people think and feel, you can ask them and find out. This technique may seem simple, but sometimes it can be remarkably helpful.”