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Facial Expressions are about Social Influence, not Emotion, Study Finds

Posted March 29, 2018

The claim that we use our facial expressions to achieve a desired outcome is hardly news to anyone – we are (at least at times) quite cognizant of what our intentions are when we’re “making faces”.

But what about the claim that facial expressions always stem from intentions, rather than feelings? This idea is explored in a new paper entitled, “Facial Displays are Tools for Social Influence” by Associate Professor Alan J. Fridlund from the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences at UC Santa Barbara.

According to Fridlund, our facial expressions are not so much about us, but about the direction “we want a social interaction to go”. For example, the “cry” face is usually considered an expression of sadness, but we use that face to solicit succour, whether that means reassurance, words of comfort or just a hug.”

The paper, published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science, builds on Fridlund’s previous work in debunking the traditional view of emotions as “windows to the soul”, and attempts to bring the field up to a scientific understanding of human facial displays and restore continuity with modern views of animal communication.

Research conducted in the 1960s was based on a set preconceptions, a crucial one being that specific facial expressions match specific emotions. Much of the work conducted afterwards, however, found surprisingly little correlation between the two.

Smiles, just like most (if not all) facial expressions, are calibrated with regards to social context in order to influence those around us in ways that are beneficial to ourselves and our close ones. Image courtesy of, CC0 Public Domain.

“A “disgust” face may mean a person is about to throw up, but it can also mean we don’t like atonal music, and the other person knows not to put on a Schoenberg CD,” Fridlund said. “When we ask someone about the weather outside, her smile says it’s nice out, even if she’s having a rotten day.”

Fridlund’s evolutionary approach to our behavioural ecology, based on research conducted over two decades ago, emphasises that being around people (or even imagining that someone else is in the room with us) changes our bodily expressions.

“When we are with others, we’re always checking to see how they are reacting, and they make faces when we see them looking for our reactions.”

And, as anyone who had ever encountered a malfunctioning computer or even a soda machine knows, facial expression aren’t limited to interactions with people. But their origins and functions (almost) certainly are.


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