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Clinician’s Digest II

Reading Emotions

By Jared DeFife

When it comes to the craft of conversation, most of us believe that some face-to-face interaction is the key component of emotional communication. For social engagement, we connect with our social network over Facebook or use our various iDevices for a little FaceTime with relatives. But new research is questioning how we actually process and interpret the emotional reactions of others. The findings might make us take an about-face turn on conventional wisdom regarding facial expressions and emotions.

For decades, researchers have relied on the “Ekman faces” for studying how we process emotional expressions. In the 1970s, psychologist Paul Ekman created a set of black and white photographic images of actors portraying six “universal emotions”: happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise. Although the stimuli have varied over time (to incorporate actors of varying ethnicity, for example) and the universal emotions have expanded (to include emotions such as pride, guilt, and shame), the fundamental reliance on facial expressions as a primary indicator of emotional state has remained. Now it appears that, when it comes to intense real-world emotional experiences—such as the joy and relief of seeing your first child born or the agony and disappointment of a crushing defeat—our faces may not be as revealing as once believed.

To examine the role of facial expressions and body language in how we interpret the intense emotional displays of others, researchers at Princeton, New York, and Radboud universities captured photographic images of peak emotional expressions from a variety of powerful real-life situations, including high-stakes tennis matches, sexual orgasms, home-makeover reveals, and navel or nipple piercing. After manipulating the images to isolate facial expressions, bodily expressions, or bodily and facial expressions combined, the researchers asked study participants to rate the type and intensity of emotional experience they thought they saw in each image.

As published in the journal Science, the results demonstrated that when viewing facial expressions alone, viewers were no better than chance at identifying whether the expression indicated a positive or negative experience. Viewers were much better able to identify positive or negative experiences when viewing the images of bodily expressions of emotions (with or without the corresponding facial display).

In case you’re tempted to read these results and think you knew it would turn out that way all along, the researchers actually described their methods to a separate group of participants beforehand. Of those asked, 80 percent thought viewing the face alone would be most accurate, whereas only 20 percent thought the body/face images would be most effective, and zero people predicted that the body image alone would be the most useful indicator. Furthermore, by manipulating the body image, the experimenters successfully manipulated viewer perceptions of the emotions shown. For example, when putting the face of someone undergoing piercing on the body of a tennis victor, viewers were more likely to rate the photograph as someone experiencing intense joy.

“These results show that when emotions become extremely intense, the difference between positive and negative facial expression blurs,” said the lead researcher Hillel Aviezer in a released statement. “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.”

Beyond that, the study’s results may have implications for therapist practice and training by overcoming our natural inclination to pay attention to facial expressions and highlighting more focused attention on body language and physical cues. Videotaped supervision sessions might need to zoom back to incorporate the body posture of therapists and their patients. Also, teletherapy through Skype, which focuses primarily on the face, might be improved with more attention to the whole-person image.


Reading Emotions: Science 338, no. 6111 (November 2012): 1225–29;

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