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The Trouble with Reading Faces

A new study suggests that reading emotions on others’ faces is not as easy as you might think.

--by Megan McCrea A soccer team celebrates a victory

The Gist

Imagine the face of a soccer player who has just kicked a crucial, last-second goal, catapulting her team to a World Cup title. Now, picture the face of an Olympic swimmer who's just surfaced after a grueling sprint, only to learn that she has lost the race by a finger-length. If you saw only these women’s faces, you would be able to tell who won and who lost, right?

Wrong. According to a study published today in Science, it’s not so easy to judge a person’s emotions from his or her facial expressions alone.

Researchers from Princeton University, NYU, and Hebrew University in Jerusalem showed study participants photographs of winning and losing athletes. They asked the participants to identify the emotion the person in the photograph was feeling. Was this athlete experiencing the ecstasy of triumph, or the agony of defeat? The researchers found that participants who based their decisions on body language—rather than facial expression alone—tended to judge the players’ emotions more accurately.

Clearly, these findings challenge the conventional wisdom that “the eyes are the windows to the soul.” But, more importantly, according to study co-author Dr. Alexander Todorov, the results challenge a well-accepted theory of emotion perception.

The Expert Take

This theory holds that there are a number of emotions—anger, disgust, sadness, fear, surprise, and happiness—that are universally identifiable through facial expressions. As Todorov explains, “the theory is that extreme emotions will look distinct from each other.”

According to the theory, a tennis player who has just won an important point would look completely different from a player who has just lost a key point. In this study, however, when participants looked at the faces of winning and losing tennis players, they could not tell who had won and who had lost.

“In this case,” explains Todorov, “when we’re talking about extremely positive and extremely negative emotions, the distinctness in the face completely collapses.”

Sounds crazy, right?

As a matter of fact, there is a biological basis for this phenomenon. In the study, the researchers note that “brain imaging studies consistently show regions activated by both positive and negative emotions, including the insula, striatum, orbitofrontal cortex, nucleus accumbens, and amygdala.”

Thus, winning activates many of the same parts of the brain that losing does. This could cause the person who has just won the US Open to make the same facial expression as his opponent who just lost the tournament. Why? Because their brains are doing the same thing.

The interesting part, however, is that people tend to believe they can easily read emotions in others’ faces.

“When we asked our subjects, ‘where do you think you get your information?’, they would say ‘the face,’ Todorov explains. "People mistakenly believe that there’s lots of information in the face.”

So does this mean that you can never “read” a person’s face to determine how he or she is feeling? Dr. Jason Hershberger, chief of psychiatry at SUNY-Downstate, sounds a word of caution about the study results.

It’s important to remember, he notes, that “the bodies [that the researchers] are using are professional athletes in a spectator sport.”

And tennis players aren’t exactly playing in a vacuum. “For these athletes, it’s a performance,” says Hershberger. “We watch Venus Williams because we want to see her jump at the end of the match.”

On the other hand, psychotherapist Dr. Russell Hyken argues that the findings can be generalized. “The study used athletes, but any time, if someone hits the lotto, that [person’s] initial reaction can look the same as someone who just learned of a tragedy.”

According to Dr. Hyken, “the initial jolt of emotion tends to look the same.”

Source and Method

Researchers from Princeton University, NYU, and Hebrew University in Jerusalem recruited a group of 127 participants. They performed four related studies, each of which examined participants’ ability to assess others’ emotions based on facial expression and body language.

For the first experiment, they divided the participants into three groups. They showed each group photographs of tennis players who had just won or lost a key point. Some participants saw the person’s face, some saw the person’s body, and some saw both the face and body. The researchers asked participants to rate the emotion of the person in the picture. In the end, participants who saw the player's body judged that person’s emotion much more accurately than their peers who saw only the player’s face.

In the second experiment, the researchers Photoshopped winning players’ faces onto losing players’ bodies, and vice versa. The researchers then asked participants to rate the players’ emotions. The researchers found that participants tended to base their judgment on the player’s body rather than on his or her face.

In the third experiment, the researchers showed participants photographs of people experiencing intense emotion (joy, grief, pleasure, pain, victory, or defeat). They asked the participants to rate the emotion of the person in the photo. In this case, participants could not accurately gauge the emotion based on isolated faces. When the faces were paired with bodies, the participants tended to rely on the body for emotional information.

In the final experiment, the researchers asked participants to mimic the facial expression conveyed by a person in a photograph. The participants usually based their facial expression upon the emotion conveyed by the person’s body, rather than the emotion conveyed by his or her face.

The Takeaway

The study should raise awareness about the way we gauge emotion in others. While we tend to believe that we can “read” people’s faces to find out how they are feeling, this may not necessarily be true.

Believe it or not, this isn’t bad news. Hyken notes that, for parents, this could cut down on unnecessary anxiety. For instance, it means that “the look of horror [on a child’s face] could be a look of excitement.”

If you find yourself in an intense emotional situation, take a moment to assess it before responding to others’ facial expressions. If you carefully examine the other person’s body language, you might realize that the situation is not as dire as you thought.

Other Research

Over the years, a number of studies have examined the way in which people “read” facial expressions. However, this was the first study to focus specifically on temporary periods of intense emotion.

A 2008 study published in Psychological Science examined the way in which people perceive the same facial expression in different contexts. The researchers found that, depending on context, participants might interpret the exact same face as conveying anger, fear, or disgust.

Another study, published in Psychological Bulletin in 2002, charted how people in different cultures perceive emotion. The researchers found that participants were more successful at recognizing emotions in other people belonging to their own national, ethnic, or regional group.

Finally, a study conducted by researchers at Albright College, published in 2008 in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, assessed the facial expressions of people pain, alongside the expressions of people experiencing pleasure. The researchers found that the facial expressions associated with pain and pleasure can be surprisingly similar.

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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.