A new Hebrew University of Jerusalem research project says it’s all about body language and less about facial expressions when trying to decipher someone’s mood.
Researchers at the Hebrew University, together with scientists at New York University and Princeton University, have discovered that body language conveys a much clearer message despite what leading theoretical models and conventional wisdom might indicate.
Dr. Hillel Aviezer of the Psychology Department of the Hebrew University collaborated on the joint study together with Dr. Yaacov Trope of New York University and Dr. Alexander Todorov of Princeton University.
The researchers present data showing that viewers in test groups were baffled when shown photographs of people who were undergoing real-life, highly intense positive and negative experiences.
To test the perception of highly intense faces, the researchers presented trial groups with photos of dozens of highly intense facial expressions in a variety of real-life emotional situations. For example, in one study they compared emotional expressions of professional tennis players winning or losing a point.
To pinpoint how people recognize such images, Aviezer and his colleagues showed different versions of the pictures to three groups of participants: 1) the full picture with the face and body; 2) the body with the face removed; and 3) the face with the body removed. Remarkably, participants could easily tell apart the losers from winners when they rated the full picture or the body alone, but they were at chance level when rating the face alone.
In an additional study, Aviezer and his collaborators asked viewers to examine a more broad range of real-life intense faces. Viewers were unable to tell apart the faces occurring in positive vs. negative situations.
“These results show that when emotions become extremely intense, the difference between positive and negative facial expression blurs,” says Aviezer. “The findings, challenge classic behavioral models in neuroscience, social psychology and economics, in which the distinct poles of positive and negative valence do not converge.”
Aviezer adds: “From a practical-clinical perspective, the results may help researchers understand how body/face expressions interact during emotional situations. For example, individuals with autism may fail to recognize facial expressions, but perhaps if trained to process important body cues, their performance may significantly improve.”
The study was published in the journal Science.