Smiling and other facial expressions aren’t displays of feelings that transcend cultures but turn out to be full of hidden meaning
12 February 2020
EVERYBODY knows a genuine smile when they see one. The corners of the mouth turn up, of course, but the expression is all in the eyes. Those wrinkly crow’s feet around the edges are what distinguish this from an inauthentic or social smile. They are what make it a sure-fire sign that someone is happy. Right?
Well, maybe not. And the same goes for all the other facial expressions of emotion. It may sound heretical, but psychologists are starting to question whether these really do reveal our emotions or whether they might serve a more nefarious purpose.
The orthodox view holds that there is a group of basic emotions at least six, but perhaps many more that all humans display on their faces in fundamentally the same way. This means that other people can reliably read your emotional state from your face. It is an appealing idea that has influenced everything from educational practices and behavioural-learning programmes for children with autism to emotion-detecting software algorithms. But now it is being challenged. Some dissenters believe that facial “expressions” aren’t reliable guides to our emotions at all, but tools that we use to manipulate others. If this is correct, the implications for our social interactions are enormous.
The idea that patterns of facial muscular movements express and indicate our emotions has a long history. It was popularised by influential 17th-century French artist Charles Le Brun, a court painter to Louis XIV, who prescribed the facial configurations …