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Photos of athletes in their moment of victory or defeat usually show faces contorted with intense emotion. But a new study suggests that people actually don't use those kinds of extreme facial expressions to judge how a person is feeling.
Instead, surprisingly, people rely on body cues.
Hillel Aviezer, a psychology researcher at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, wanted to see how accurately people can read intense, real-world facial expressions — instead of the standardized, posed images of facial expressions that are usually used in lab tests.
So he and his colleagues decided to do some experiments using images of professional tennis players. That's because, in top tennis matches, the stakes are sky high, and professional players instantly have an intense emotional reaction to winning or losing a critical point. And usually, people have no trouble figuring out what emotions a tennis player is feeling when they see a photo of that player standing on a tennis court, clutching a racket.
"When I look at a sports magazine, and I see the full picture of a person winning a point, and he has his full gesture, the whole picture makes perfect sense to me," says Aviezer. "The face looks like a victorious face, and the body looks victorious; everything together seems to make perfect sense."
But that sense of certainty disappeared, he found, when he took images of tennis winners and losers, and erased everything but the face. When he showed just those isolated faces to people, they couldn't tell if something positive or negative was going on.
"This was really a very striking finding," says Aviezer.
Then he showed people images of tennis players with the faces erased. People had to judge winners from losers based solely on the rest of the body. "And when people saw the body alone, they easily knew if this was a positive or negative emotion," explains Aviezer.
This is counterintuitive, he says, because people usually assume that if they are getting an emotional message, it must come from the facial expression.
In fact, when Aviezer shows people full images of tennis players — the faces plus the body — and asks them to describe how they know what the player is feeling, people usually describe the face. They claim to see tell-tale clues in the player's eyes or mouth. "When in fact it's an illusion," says Aviezer. "They have this false idea of information in the face when really it's coming from the body."
To test this in another way, he manipulated the photographs. He'd take the face of a winner and paste it onto the body of a loser, or vice versa.
What he found was that the exact same face would be interpreted as showing a positive or negative emotion, depending on which body it was on. These results are reported in the journal Science.
"I think that many people will find this very surprising," says Lisa Feldman Barrett, a scientist at Northeastern University who studies emotions.
These studies challenge long-held assumptions about the importance of facial expressions, she says.
"When you and I talk to each other and we look at each other, we're really looking at each other's faces. That's where our attention is. And so the assumption has been that that's where all the information is, too," says Barrett. "But these studies show very clearly that that's not the case."
These findings add to a growing body of evidence that when we're trying to figure out another person's emotional state, we rely on a lot more than just the face.