Why you shouldn’t stress if your boss is making a face when you talk

Angry businessman shouting isolated in a black background

Ask yourself, is your facial expression right now a spot-on representation of how you’re feeling on the inside? In all likelihood, the answer is no. 

Human beings are incredibly complex. Each one of us is blessed or perhaps cursed depending on your viewpoint, with the ability to experience a wide array of inner thoughts and emotions simultaneously. That’s why, according to a new study conducted at Ohio State University, we should all take an extra moment of consideration before we judge someone’s mood based solely on their facial expression.

Still, day-to-day interaction with other people is largely predicated on reading each other’s faces. That guy with a scowl on his face who just cut you in line at the grocery store? Probably a good idea to just leave him alone. How about that smiling, seemingly cheerful, cashier manning a different register? It seems like a smart move to head over to her line of customers. 

It’s an instinctual decision-making process that largely happens on a subconscious level. After all, ancient humans were reading each other’s motives, emotions, and moods based on facial expressions long before any one language was developed. A whole lot has changed since then, though, and the research team behind this study says that facial expressions simply aren’t accurate indicators of emotion in today’s day and age.

Moreover, the study actually suggests it is more advisable to never trust what one observes in another’s face.

“The question we really asked is: ‘Can we truly detect emotion from facial articulations?'” comments study leader Aleix Martinez, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at OSU, in a press release. “And the basic conclusion is, no, you can’t.”

Martinez and his team analyzed muscle movements and expressions on participants’ faces and then compared those movements with their self-reported inner emotions. Incredibly, they found that their emotional assumptions based on the participants’ faces were almost always wrong.

“Everyone makes different facial expressions based on context and cultural background,” Martinez explains. “And it’s important to realize that not everyone who smiles is happy. Not everyone who is happy smiles. I would even go to the extreme of saying most people who do not smile are not necessarily unhappy. And if you are happy for a whole day, you don’t go walking down the street with a smile on your face. You’re just happy.”

The ever-expanding use of facial recognition technology represents another layer to the study’s findings. The research team tested a number of modern facial recognition techniques being used by some of the biggest tech companies in the world and found the vast majority to be woefully inaccurate. 

“Some claim they can detect whether someone is guilty of a crime or not, or whether a student is paying attention in class, or whether a customer is satisfied after a purchase,” Martinez says. “What our research showed is that those claims are complete baloney. There’s no way you can determine those things. And worse, it can be dangerous.”

So, if we can’t count on facial expressions alone to inform us of others’ emotions, what can we rely on?

One facial component that is often much more accurate in color, according to the study. When an individual experiences a strong emotion, such as anger, their brain releases a rush of hormones that influence blood flow and composition. The face, in particular, is filled with a large variety of these hormones, almost always leading to a change in facial color. Another example would be blushing when one feels embarrassed. Overall body posture was also listed as an accurate emotional giveaway.

However, sometimes even the most seemingly obvious facial giveaways can be misleading. That’s why the study’s authors believe context is key when it comes to determining another person’s emotional state.

To illustrate this point, Martinez described one experiment conducted for the study. Participants were shown a cropped image of only a man’s face. The man was screaming, and his face was bright red. Predictably, all the participants assumed the man was angry about something, and perhaps even on the verge of violence. However, once the full picture was shown, participants saw that the man was in actuality a soccer player happily celebrating a goal. 

Culture can also play a large role when it comes to facial emotions. Smiling is considered socially pleasant in the US, but in other countries, it is often interpreted as a sign of disrespect. Considering the variety of ethnic origins among U.S. residents, the cultural aspect of facial expression may be at play much more often than many realize.

So, the next time you’re about to jump to a hasty conclusion about someone’s state of mind based on their facial expression, take a moment before judging too quickly. It’s entirely likely that millions of people each day, from a teacher evaluating a student’s attentiveness to a hiring manager judging an interviewee, misread the emotions of those in their company.

The study was recently presented at the 2020 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.