What are they thinking Our bodies, not faces, reveal the truth about how we feel



07:44 GMT, 30 November 2012

If you find it hard to read someone’s emotions, the problem may be that you are staring them in the face.

Research suggests that it is a person’s body that gives away what they are thinking, not their expression.

When men and women were given photos of individuals and asked to judge the emotion shown, they did badly when just given head and shoulders shots. With images of the whole person, they did much better.

When men and women were given photos of individuals, they did badly at guessing their emotions with just a head shot

When our feelings are intense, our face may do a poor job of expressing emotions

Research suggests it is a person's body that reveals what they are thinking and not their facial expression

The researchers began by showing
volunteers pictures taken of professional tennis players including Andy
Murray and Rafael Nadal as they experienced the highs and lows of
winning and losing points at Wimbledon. Given the faces alone, the
couldn’t tell the winners from the losers.

But with a face and body, or just the
body, they could easily tell who was victorious. The key seemed to be in
the players’ hands, with a clenched fist denoting a win and splayed
fingers a loss.

To widen the experiment, volunteers were
shown pictures of people experiencing a range of emotions, from the joy
of seeing one’s house after a lavish makeover, to the grief of attending
a funeral.

Winner: Rafael Nadal clenches his fist as a sign of victory

Loser: Splayed fingers denote a loss

People could not distinguish winners from the losers given faces alone. When they saw the body as well, the key was in the players' hands with a clenched fist denoting victory while splayed fingers signified a loss

So what are they thinking

Again, they were poor judges when simply shown the faces. In fact, they often rated the happy expressions more negatively than the sad ones.

To further prove that it is the body and not the face that is key in expression emotion, the researchers created fake photos in which a happy face was planted on a sad body and vice versa. Again, it was the body that was the giveaway.

The Israeli and American researchers said that when our feelings are very intense, our facial muscles may do a poor job of expressing our emotions. They wrote in the journal Science: ‘Much like speakers blaring at maximum volume, the quality of the facial signal becomes degraded and noisy.’

Lead researcher Dr Hillel Aviezer, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said: ‘Western society has the idea that the most important source of information is the face.

‘The research says maybe we should zoom out and try to take a broader look. Emotions happen to the whole person.

‘The results may help researchers understand how body/face expressions interact during emotional situations.’

He added that reading faces is still important when trying to distinguish more subtle emotions.

David Lewis-Hodgson, a chartered psychologist and director of private research firm Mindlab International said: ‘The study used a slightly artificial situation. A still picture is a moment frozen in time.’