We judge people’s facial expressions in social interactions, but we also do it as jurors in the courtroom when deciding whether a defendant is guilty or remorseful. Assumptions about people’s feelings based on their facial movements influences treatment plans for people living with autism and other brain disorders. It has also shaped the direction of research in various scientific fields, including neuroscience and psychiatry.
“Gauging a person’s emotional state from their facial expressions alone is a futile exercise,” says Lisa Feldman Barrett,
a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, who studies the way humans express emotion.
“What’s new here is that we are showing that the evidence never suggested that facial expressions are universal despite the claims that are being made by some scientists and by many companies.”
Barrett and a blue-ribbon panel of five senior scientists reached this conclusion after spending two years reviewing hundreds of experiments.
The researchers examined the facial expressions of adults living in urban western cultures, as well as children and infants, congenitally blind individuals, and people living in remote cultures. Our misguided assumptions about the correlation between expressions and emotions have significant implications for various sectors of society.
Barrett cited a behavioral screening program by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration that trained agents to spot terrorists by reading facial expressions that has been deemed ineffective. She also cited software programs purporting to read emotions in faces that are being tested for a variety of purposes including surveillance, hiring, clinical diagnosis, and market research.
All this to say that facial expressions aren’t completely devoid of meaning, Barrett says. But in order to really understand how someone is feeling, it’s important to consider the context around their facial movements, taking into account variables such as the individual’s physical state or body posture and vocal acoustics.