Study: Our smiles and frowns do not actually reflect our feelings

Before you go reading too much into your boss’s face for clues, know this — that smile or frown doesn’t actually mean what you think it means. Too many of us are taught that our facial expressions are mirrors of our feelings. ‘When our boss smiles, she’s happy, when our coworker frowns, he’s mad,’ we’re taught to believe. But recent research debunks this, finding that our facial expressions are our tools to telegraph our intentions or goals.

“Facial displays are not about us, but about changing the behavior of those around us,” psychologists Alan Fridlund and Carlos Crivelli argued in their new paper on facial expressions.

Facial expressions are not emotional states

Facial expressions are not reflections of primal feeling but are social negotiation tools. They are signals to both sender and recipient of how they want the interaction to go, Fridlund and Crivelli argue.

Centuries of Western thought tells us “that internal essences (‘emotions’) are externalized via our different facial expressions.” Your face looks happy, therefore you are happy. But the new behavioral ecology view of facial displays theory challenges this idea. Under it, facial expressions are not universally shared or reliable emotional vectors.

Once you understand that facial expressions are road signs, not maps, you can read your coworkers’ scowl in a new light. Here is how to read faces under this new theory:

  • Smiling: Not as happiness, but as a way to get a person to play or affiliate
  • Pouting: Not as sadness, but as a way to recruit person’s support or protection
  • Scowling: Not as anger, but as a way to influence a person to submit
  • Gasping: Not as fear, but as a way to deflect person’s attack via one’s own submission or retreat from a conversation
  • Nose Scrunching: Not as disgust, but as a rejection of the current interaction trajectory
  • Blank face: Not as poker face of suppressed emotion, but as a way for the person to disengage by leading the conversation nowhere

These complex, nuanced signals show us that we are social creatures who want to manipulate the interaction to go our way. When your baby cries out when she is alone in the night, she is recruiting your care. When your boss scowls, it’s not actual anger, it’s a way for them to get you to submit and agree with their point of view.

Our faces are influenced by who we are with, and what are our goals for the interaction. When we make a face, we are not exposing how we feel, in other words. We are showing what we want to happen next.