A key to improving your ability to read others


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People’s facial expressions can provide a powerful set of signals to suggest what they are really feeling. However, there are those cunning individuals who have mastered the art of “poker face”, making their emotions almost unfathomable. Try as best you can, you cannot understand from their eyes, mouth or forehead what is really going on inside them.

To make matters worse, even experts in emotional psychology admit that opposite facial expressions can mean the same emotions and vice versa. Have “tears of laughter” ever confused you about a friend’s reactions to good news?

According to Christopher Thorstenson and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2021), “Perceptions of expressions of certain pairs of emotions (anger-disgust, surprise-fear) are often confused by observers due to the discovery that these pairs of emotions share expressive traits with each other. It is one thing for experimenters to have to work their way through this problem and another for you to understand why this friend might be mysteriously saddened by what should be considered a matter of great joy.

The science behind the blush

Like Thorstensen et al. Point out, what psychology researchers may miss is one of the most obvious features of the face that can reveal someone’s honest feelings. If you enjoy reading Victorian novels, you’ve probably encountered this signal as a key indicator of a character’s emotions. Consider Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice. The hero and heroine seem unduly prone to blush, a fact observed by Mary Ann O’Farrell of Texas A&M in her article, “Austen’s blush.”

Because emotional researchers have generally not considered the role of facial coloring as an emotional signal, Thortensen et al. maintain, they may miss opportunities to gain insight into the emotion-decoding processes that people use in their daily lives. Blushing, an involuntary reaction, can appear on people’s faces through a variety of skin tones, and unlike muscle disguises people learn to manipulate, it can be subject to much less deliberate control.

Citing background research, the research team points out that there is a strong physiological basis for altered facial coloring in people who experience particular feelings primarily due to changes in the vascular system that feeds the skin. Quite simply, it means that when your autonomic nervous system is awake, blood begins to flow to your face.

The main feature of these facial coloring cues is that, unlike frowns, smiles, or even crying, these emotions are distinctly different parallels. As the authors point out, anger and surprise are associated with the “flush” of the face, but disgust and fear with the “green” of the face (ie, pallor). The research question posed by the authors was whether observers can use experimentally generated variations in the facial color of experimentally created stimuli to improve the accuracy of reading emotional signals.

Test the perception of a blush

Through a series of experiments, Thorstensen and his colleagues provided their young adult students (recruited from the University of Rochester) with facial stimuli representing the emotional states of anger versus disgust, surprise versus fear, and tearful sadness versus happiness.

The basic framework for these experiments involved the researchers showing participants a set of computer-generated faces that were known (through previous experiences) to be ambiguous in their emotional expression. To test the effect of facial coloring as an emotional clue, the researchers presented these faces tinted in different shades corresponding to the contrasting pair of emotions.

Knowing that the faces were indeed confusing on their own, the authors felt that if people choose an emotion over its opposite on the basis of color, it would reinforce the proposition that facial coloring is indeed a signal. important reading of emotions.

In the first two studies, Thorstenson and colleagues, using faces ranging from reddish to greenish, found that as the redness of ambiguous faces increased, participants were more likely to rate them as demonstrating anger versus disgust and fear against. surprise. In addition, as the redness of the face increased, participants rated the faces as showing increasingly intense emotions.

Interestingly, in the fear-surprise experiment, participants rated moderately reddened faces as showing surprise, but as the faces depicted became more and more reddened, participants rated the face more afraid than surprised. The authors interpreted this finding based on how people actually react when something frightening unexpectedly turns up.

Imagine you are taking a pleasant walk in the middle of the day and a cyclist appears out of nowhere, almost knocking you over. Your first response would be surprise, but fear will engulf you almost immediately. This link between surprise and fear would then help to explain the pattern of results associated with the effects of redness on participants’ reading of emotions. The more intensely the face became red, the more participants saw it as reflecting fear.

Distinguish tears of joy from tears of sadness

Now come back to the question of how to tell if someone’s tears reflect sadness or happiness. Thorstenson and his fellow researchers decided to dig deeper into this complex question by creating a new set of faces, this time of women (upper half of the face only). This time, they added a red-yellow dimension to the design, based on previous studies showing that redder and more yellow faces are deemed happy while greener and bluer faces appear sadder. Although “watery”, there were no actual tears flowing from the eyes of the computer-generated stimuli.

Consistent with the predictions of Thorstenson et al., Participants rated the redder and more yellow faces as happier. However, these sad eyes were never really perceived by the participants as “happy”. Indeed, as the authors note, “tearful sadness and happiness may not be at all confusing, as long as they do not share many common expressive traits other than tears.” In other words, if you see someone crying, you are less likely to be confused about the emotion the person is feeling.

The good and bad news about facial emotion signals

The main positive of the study is that adding facial coloring to your emotion reading tool set can potentially be of great value. If someone you’ve inadvertently insulted is trying to disguise an angry reaction, paying attention to how flushed the person’s face is can let you know that an apology is in order. Likewise, watery eyes are more likely to reflect true sadness than happiness, especially if the rest of the person’s face turns pale.

You can also take pleasure in the fact that you are judging real people, not computer-generated images. The situational context and this new facial reading index may improve your ability to assess the effects of your words.

The bad news from this study is that all of the faces used as stimuli were those of people with fair skin and they were all male or female according to the study. So the results won’t help you much if you’re trying to judge people with varying base skin tone. More research is needed on this aspect of facial perception, as the authors acknowledge. In real life, furthermore, people (mostly women) wear makeup, including blush, which could make signals based on their underlying cardiovascular reactions much more obscured.

To summarize, the next time you’re not sure how someone is feeling, judgments based on their face color can give you an additional set of potential clues to help you navigate the situation. Complex emotions are a defining characteristic of complex relationships, and by improving your accuracy, you will at least have one more resource to help make those relationships as rewarding as possible.

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