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Why You Should Never Trust A Person's Face, According To Research

Abby Moore
Editorial Operations Manager By Abby Moore
Editorial Operations Manager
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Young Folks Flirting in a Library

Whether a job interview or a first date, you've probably been in a situation where you were desperate to read someone else's emotions. If you relied on visual clues to determine whether the person was satisfied or interested, according to new research, you were looking in the wrong place. 

During the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) researchers revealed why we should never trust a person's face. 

"Not everyone who smiles is happy, and not everyone who is happy smiles," lead researcher Aleix Martinez, Ph.D., told mbg. 

He and his team of researchers were trying to determine whether facial expressions provided an accurate glimpse into someone's emotions. "And the basic conclusion," Martinez said, "is no."     

How did they figure this out?

Martinez and his team of researchers—scientists from Northeastern University, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of Wisconsin—studied more than 5 million images of facial expressions from 35 different countries. They also compared the muscle movements of the human face to the muscle movements with a person's emotions. 

When attempting to determine someone's emotion based on their face, the researchers were nearly always wrong. So how can we figure out what someone's feeling without verbal confirmation?

"Emotions can be communicated nonverbally, but facial muscle articulations are not the sole means," he told us. "Facial color, body pose, body movements, context, situations, and culture, all play a role."

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How does facial hue play a role?

While we can activate our muscles to make certain facial expressions, we have no control over our blood flow. When we experience emotions, the "brain releases peptides—mostly hormones—that change the blood flow and blood composition," Martinez said in a news release. When the face is flooded with those peptides, it changes color. 

In Martinez's previous research, he found "color can successfully communicate 18 distinct emotion categories to an observer."

You might recognize these color variations—when someone is angry or embarrassed, red will flush to their cheeks. On the other hand, when someone is frightened, they might turn pale. 

The color changes can help you read someone's emotions, regardless of ethnicity, gender, and race. 

How does culture play a role?

If you're from the U.S., you're probably used to smiling when you make eye contact with someone. Culturally, we've been taught, it's the polite thing to do. "But in some cultures," Martinez said, "if you walked around the supermarket smiling at everyone, you might get smacked."

People also tend to smile to make others around them comfortable, even though they're unhappy themselves. This might stem from a desire to be liked—which brings its own dangers.

Why does this matter?

Recognizing that facial expressions do not define someone's true feelings can prevent us from making wrongful judgments. 

"Some claim they can detect whether someone is guilty of a crime or not, or whether a student is paying attention in class," Martinez said. Making these assumptions can alter the way we perceive a person, causing us to make unjust decisions about their abilities. 

According to Martinez, these findings can help everyone, from hiring managers to professors to criminal justice experts, make more fair and holistic evaluations of a person. 

Eliminating biases based on facial expression can create more empathy for others and will hopefully encourage people to challenge their own expectations. And while we're challenging our biases, let's consider the clothes people wear.

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