Emotional expressions: The face isn’t the whole story

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Facing facts: The face doesn’t have it; eyeball the body!

A tennis player drives the ball into the corner and wins a match. A body artist pierces a piece of delicate skin. A winner on Extreme Home Makeover sees her refurbished house for the first time.

And the face is consumed with intense emotion: the triumph of victory. The grimace of pain. The joy of seeing the humble home place with a fantastic new facade.

But at the moment of peak emotion, does the face reveal the type of emotion? Apparently not. In a study published today in Science, researchers reported a surprising failure to distinguish positive and negative emotions on real-world facial photos.


Male swimmer standing with mouth wide open and eyes scrunched shut in celebration.

Michael Phelps and his team set a 4×100-meter freestyle world record at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

But throw in a photo of the entire person – showing the body language — and it was easy to tell who won and who lost.

The idea that the face fails to deliver flies in the face of decades of psychological research, says first author Hillel Aviezer, an assistant professor of psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “When people say they are doing research on basic emotions, it usually means they are going into the lab, using posed, artificial photos of facial expressions: anger, fear, sadness. We have learned a lot with these … but I felt the urge to step out of the lab, and ask, what do facial expressions look like in the real world?”

Face the face

Using photos of tennis players shot immediately after they won or lost an important point, Aviezer asked subjects to rate the intensity and nature of the emotion. And here came the first surprise: People could not distinguish a winner from a loser from the face alone – the face showed the emotion’s intensity, but not its nature.

But add a photo of the body to the face – or even display the body alone — and it was a facile task to identify winners and losers.

Photos of tennis players facilitated the study, notes Aviezer, who performed the research as a post-doctoral fellow under Alexander Todorov at Princeton University. “In singles, two people are clearly separate … and the points are very clear. As the game escalates, the stakes become higher, and you can get very good facial shots.”

Curiously, at the instant of peak emotion, “when theoretically we would expect the positive and negative [expressions] to be very different, it seems they merge into this very confusable state,”says Aviezer. “It’s hard to know if something good or bad is going on.”

Winners and losers

After an important point, we have three winners, and three losers. But which is which? Mouseover images to see.
Photos: Reuters, used with permission

We found these faces inscrutable, and Aviezer agreed. “We have tested dozens of faces, and I often find myself just as bewildered as anyone else. Is this a winner or a loser?”

In another facet of the study, when the researchers Photoshopped a winning face on a losing body, “body language”overwhelmed “face talk.”Tellingly, people who saw a winning face spliced to a losing body thought they were seeing a loss, and vice versa.

Faces: Not always an open book

Although the finding concerns the moment of peak emotion, not the overall facial expression of emotion, it’s a shock to anybody who thinks they can “read”faces “like an open book.”

Male tennis player thrusting fist over head and striding across court holding racket.

Photo: Boss Tweed
Roger Federer has just won the 2007 U.S. Open Men’s Finals. If this isn’t the body language of victory, we don’t know what is…

The research subjects, however, thought they were reading faces: after seeing a winning face alongside a winning body, many “said it was all about the faces,”Aviezer says. “Some said, it was all about the mouth; others said you could tell from the eyes.”

But “we know that when they see the face alone, people have no idea,” Aviezer says. “It seems they are taking information from the body and reading it into the face.”

Beyond sports, the research paper examined other highly emotional situations, including grief at a funeral, the intense joy of seeing a freebie house makeover for a TV show, even sexual pleasure. “We looked at intense pain versus intense pleasure, and lo and behold, you can’t tell the difference,” Aviezer adds. “So this seems to be robust, not specific to sports.”

The results could help those who, due to a psychiatric disorder, have difficulty recognizing facial expressions, Aviezer says. “Imagine you are in the schoolyard and someone gives you a pat on the back. You are not sure if they are mocking or smiling, so you are in big trouble. To help these people, we have focused on [understanding] the face – but maybe it’s important to … zoom out and train them to understand the face in the context of the body.”

I’m happy unhappy. Can’t you tell the difference?

Intensity may play by its own rules, Aviezer adds. After all, people cry – and laugh — at funerals, and at weddings. “Perhaps positive and negative are not so separate; they can merge in unexpected ways.”

Despite what he found in the new study, the traditional model of emotions in psychology textbooks “makes a very clear prediction,” he says. “The stronger an emotion is in a positive or negative direction, the easier it should be to differentiate. There has been decades of research on facial expressions, looking at floating heads. We should look at faces in a broader setting.”

Faces are still useful for evaluating emotional peaks, Aviezer adds. “The face does retain information about the intensity, which the body is not so good at. The body keeps the valence [direction of the emotion], and the face tells you something about intensity.”

And he’s not being facetious…

— David J. Tenenbaum


Terry Devitt, editor; Emily Eggleston, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. Body Cues, Not Facial Expressions, Discriminate Between Intense Positive and Negative Emotions; Hillel Aviezer et al, Science, 30 Nov. 2012.
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  4. How a brain interprets a facial expressions
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