Facial expression and recognition

. Facial recognition always involves a strong emotional content.

"...When we communicate emotion, facial expression is by far the most important mechanism......this is why we are never entirely neutral in our dealings with other human beings ‐ however much we would like to be. Some people look trustworthy or kind to us. (In fact, research has shown that men with softer, more feminine features are more likely to be found 'not guilty' in court). Other people may seem sad, or threatening ‐ without us being able to find any solid evidence to support that verdict..."

Robert Winston, 2003

"...we are endowed with an ability to evaluate, in a single glance at a stranger's face, two potentially critical factors about the person: how dominant (and thereby potentially threatening) he is, and how trustworthy he is, whether his intentions are more likely to be friendly or hostile. The shape of the face provides the cues for assessing dominance: a "strong" squared chin is one such cue. Facial expressions (smile or frown) provide the cues for assessing the stranger's intentions. The combination of a square chin with turned‐down mouth may spell trouble. The accuracy of face reading is far from perfect......faces that exude confidence combined a strong chin with a slight confident‐appearing smile......usually evoke stronger indications of (negative) emotional responses...... these assessments include computations of similarities and representativeness, attributions of causality, and evaluations of the available associations exemplars..."

Daniel Kahneman 2012

On the other hand, facial expressions can be faked. Also emotions will dominate rationality and realism.

. Facial recognition takes place along 2 pathways within the brain: one is the conscious realm (higher cortex) and another is the unconscious (limbic system including the amygdala)

"...the conscious pathway works at a slower speed ‐ it is here that we work out, for instance, whose face we are looking at, and how we should behave towards them. This is why we often have an almost instantaneous first impression of a person, which is chiefly an emotional feeling......which we might find hard to put in words, which might, upon further inspection, turn out to be quite wrong.......amygdala does not merely generate emotions, but seems to encode very basic emotional memories. On meeting someone whose face has vague similarities to the feared and hated......for example, triggers a swift, brief and shadowy reliving of our feelings towards the original figure..."

Robert Winston, 2003

. There are some 7,000 facial expressions (see some of these expressions later in this section) in our repertoire and these expressions have similar meanings throughout the world. This is different from gestures which can have different meanings in different cultures (see later in this section) Also,

"...Psychological studies have shown that we are, in fact, more inclined to trust people whose facial characteristics resemble our own..."

Robert Winton (2003)


"...Facial attractiveness is a visual marker for fertility, genetic quality and health. The fact that such qualities have little to do with contemporary job performance......we are programmed to select beautiful people..."

Marc F Luxen et al, 2006

. We are better at visual recognition than verbal description. We find it easier to visualise faces like Marilyn Munro, Albert Einstein, etc. than to describe (verbally or in writing) them. We have an instinctive memory for faces.

. When looking at faces we use part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus that allows us differentiate the thousands of faces we know. On the other hand, when we look at objects, we use a different and less powerful part of the brain (inferior temporal gyrus)

. Faces hold valuable clues to inner emotions and motivations, and reveal what is going on inside our mind. Facial expressions are sufficient to create marked changes in the autonomic nervous system, like physiological responses (changed heartbeat, body temperature, etc.)

"...Many facial expressions can be made voluntary......But our faces are also governed by a separate, involuntary system that makes expressions that we have no conscious control over......Response may linger on the face for just a fraction of a second or be detectable only if electrical sensors are attached to the face...... Our voluntary expressive system is the way we intentionally signal our emotions. But our involuntary expressive system is in many ways even more important: it is the way we have been equipped by evolution to signal our authentic feelings..."

Malcolm Gladwell, 2005

. Furthermore,

"... We take it as a given that we first experience an emotion, and then we may ‐ or may not ‐ experience that emotion on our face. We think of the face as a residue of emotion......research showed, though, is that the process works in the opposite direction as well. Emotions can also start on the face. The face is not a secondary billboard for our internal feelings. It is an equal partner in the emotional process..."

Malcolm Gladwell, 2005

. There is a common set of rules that govern the facial expressions of human beings and these are not culturally determined, ie we don't use our faces according to a set of learned social convention. The face is a goldmine of information about emotions. The face can make 43 distinct muscular movements. There are 300 combinations of 2 muscles; if you add a third muscle, there are over 4,000 combinations; 5 muscles can produce over 10,000 facial configurations. Research (Malcolm Gladwell, 2005) has shown that around 3,000 facial combinations mean something.

. Research has shown that people from different countries respond identically to emotions expressed facially. This means that emotions and their corresponding facial expressions are innate and not learnt. These emotions include happiness, anger, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust, etc have served an evolutionary purpose. For example, disgust (corners of the lip downturned, nose wrinkled & eyes slightly split) has an important function as it has evolved in to avoidance to disease pathogens. We have learnt the meaning of what is toxic or disgusting by relying on cues from our surroundings. Over time we have developed a more complex system of emotional communication where we find some things which are revolting are generally unsafe and some have just been culturally constructed to seem so. Expressions of disgust may be universal but the things that elicit it are not. Emotions are processed in the basal ganglia and anterior insula of the brain; this area is very malleable, ie things can be reinterpreted or re-imagined

. It is of interest to note conditions like autism result in sufferers losing the ability to read and interpret body language, such as gestures and facial expressions, which puts them at a disadvantage in inter‐personal relationships.

. When we communicate emotions, facial expressions are the most important mechanism

"...expressions might be common to everyone, but the understanding of them differs from one individual to another. If your experience of smiles has been that people are mocking you, or are about to do something unpleasant, you won't be happy to see a smile. You maybe afraid and defensive..."

Robert Winston, 2003


"...we are hardwired to copy our fellow humans......there are various neurons within the brain that appear to fire only in response to the actions of other humans. The presence of these so‐called "mirror‐neurons" would tend to confirm the notion that modern man evolved living in groups, and that imitating our fellow group members was a valuable strategy to survive..."

Robert Winston, 2003

. Smiling is an important facial expression. There are 2 types of smiles, ie the authentic and plastic. The muscles that produce the authentic smile a very difficult to control voluntarily as it is produced spontaneously when people are genuinely happy. To produce this model you must feel generally positive and pleased as the emotions are reflected in your facial expressions. The plastic smile can be produced on demand when the occasion demands that you perform politely. It is claimed

"...the genuine smile seems to reflect an attitude to life and a high level of optimism that convincingly predicts greater levels of satisfaction..."

Martyn Newman, 2007

Some people have difficulty reading neutral faces as neutral. People who grew up with parents who fought a lot, have problems learning to read neutral faces; they are okay in discerning happy or angry expressions. 

Conditions like depression, anxiety and irritability can affect on how another person's face is perceived. 

"...adults who are exposed to violence, neglect or physical abuse in their childhood are more likely to see hostility where there is none. This can create a self reinforcing cycle..." 

Heather Murphy 2018 


· By using for just 2 min high-power posture techniques that "make yourself feel big" changes the way the brain reacts and builds courage, reduces anxiety and inspires leadership. It involves standing in an expansive mode like starfish or standing with hands on hips, legs wide; shoot your arm straight up to answer questions rather than giving a bent elbow wave. Other high-power postures include

- feet on the desk with fingers laced behind the head; this increases testosterone levels by around 20% and lowers the stress hormone Cortisol by around 25 (David Hochman, 2014a)

- adopting upright, open postures

- stretching out comfortably

- raising and extending arms and legs

· Postures like touching the face or neck or crossing the ankles tightly while sitting are all associated with powerlessness, submissiveness and intimidation; similarly, slouched and hunched up postures

· Stereotyping is based on how people's snap judgments about warmth, courtesy and trustworthiness affect whom they date, hire, envy and disparage

· Our own body language sends signals to our own brains

Some Interesting Facial Expressions

organisational development change management

(source: Bertha Tobias, 2003)

. Importance of facial expressions

‐ they are not culturally‐determined

‐ they provide a "goldmine" of information about emotions, especially about what is happening inside our minds

‐ they are linked with the automatic nervous system, ie if your facial expressions generate anger, your heartbeat will increase, hands become hot, etc

‐ the face is not merely a residue for emotions; it can actually initiate emotions

‐ expressions can be both voluntary (the way we intentionally signal our emotions) or involuntary (equipped by evolution to signal our authentic feelings)

‐ micro‐ expressions can be hard to read

. Eye contact can mean different things. In Western culture we are encouraged to look into the eyes when talking to somebody, or listening to them, eg a parent will tell a child, "Look at me when I am talking with you". Returning a gaze is an indication of "communication receptivity". When people are in love or agreement, eye contact is a way of expressing this. On the other hand, when people are expecting conflict, eye contact is a way of conveying power, ie asserting dominance. Yet in some cultures, eye contact can be seen as threatening, eg eye contact with a female in Fiji can be interpreted as sexual harassment!!!!!

. An example of facial body language is the "4 faces of insight". People's faces change considerably when they have an "insight". The changes occur in a few seconds before, during and after someone has an insight; they produce 4 faces (awareness of dilemma, reflection, motivation and illumination

i) awareness of dilemma (identification of some kind of problem to be solved; with face looking a little unhappy and perplexed; eyes may be squinting slightly)

ii) reflection (most people look up and across with a dazed look on their face; the mouth might tense up; nearly everyone goes silent for a moment ‐ it has been found that people's brains give off Alpha‐band waves just before they come up with an insight. These waves occur when people shut down inputs from their external senses and focus on internal stimuli. Alpha waves occur with the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a chemical messenger that increases relaxation and eases pain, ie we tend to feel good. During this stage we do think logically or analyse data, ie we reflect more. The brain is making links and connections.)

iii) elimination (this involves a rush of energy like an energetic punch. Strong gamma‐band waves are omitted as the brain simultaneously processes information across different regions to form a new middleman, ie insight

iv) motivation (the eyes light up and the mouth opens)

There are 2 types of smiling:

i) a polite smile involves 2 muscles and is used as a pretend/false or smile, usually on social occasions

ii) a genuine smile uses 4 muscles. When a genuine smile fades, it does so in a more even pattern than the polite smile

"...facial expressions are a vital part of our emotional vocabulary, and while it is possible to become conscious of them, they largely take place in the region of unthought, habitual action......6 such basic facial expressions: anger, disgust, sadness, fear, surprise and happiness.... we have automatic reactions that unfold within microseconds when we see these facial signals in others.....of the brain......the left side may read voice information, while the right responds to facial information..."

Robert Winston, 2003 

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