Do people control their emotional status

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Sadness, anger, joy - the face of the other person reveals a lot. Even babies can interpret facial expressions - for good reason: Because facial expressions reveal feelings, they are an important part of human communication and interaction.

Scientific supervision: Prof. Dr. Ute Habel

Published: 08/23/2011

Level: difficult

  • Feelings come to light in facial expressions - without being deliberately influenced. The basic emotions of sadness, anger, disgust, surprise, fear and joy are expressed in essentially the same way across all cultures.
  • Understanding the language of facial expressions is inherent in humans because this ability is of great importance for social coexistence.
  • Studies show that mimicking facial expressions makes a decisive contribution to interpreting the facial expressions of others and to empathize with the underlying emotions.
  • Facial expressions are often played to hide real feelings. But this can be recognized by telltale signs such as the laugh lines around the eyes when a real smile is made.
Sunglasses make you aloof

The eyes are the mirror image of the soul, as the saying goes. In summer, however, you can no longer look into the soul of most of your contemporaries - they covered their eyes with sunglasses. This also has an impact on communication, as the psychologist Markus Studtmann from the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development found in a study. He found that large sunglasses hardly allow any conclusions to be drawn about the emotions of the other person. The reason for this lies in the great importance of the eye muscles for our facial expressions. If the upper half of the face is covered, it is much more difficult to infer the emotions of the other person than if the lower half of the face is covered. Older people appear particularly aloof with sunglasses. Studtmann discovered that they generally show fewer facial expressions than younger people. If they still have sunglasses on, they put a real poker face on the sunny day.

It's a more than uncomfortable situation: the suspect in a murder case sits across from a lanky, poorly shaved man who keeps staring at him. Once again he has to make his statement - and the man observes every movement of his face, every frown, eye twitch or the trembling of the upper lip. And suddenly he says: “The suspect is lying. His story is not true. ”He claims to have recognized this from the tiny changes in the suspect's face.

Sounds like a movie? It is. In the television series “Lie to me”, the psychologist Cal Lightman helps the police to solve criminal cases in this way. But Lightman also exists in reality. In real life, his name is Paul Ekman, and he is also a psychologist - and after years of research, he has specialized in teaching police and specialists to read the facial expressions of others. “Science knows enough about what someone looks like who lies. It would be negligent not to use this knowledge, ”says Ekman.

Everyone shows their feelings through the facial expressions on their face, whether they like it or not. When we experience joy, fear, or sadness, these feelings cause groups of neurons to fire, which in turn trigger the contraction of certain facial muscles - our facial expressions. Some people are good at hiding these emotions on their faces. But experts like Ekman are certain: Somewhere in the facial expressions, the real feeling is revealed in the end.

Facial expressions as a universal language

Studies have shown that a certain repertoire of facial expressions is common to all people in this world, whether they are Japanese, German or Indian. People who are blind from birth also show identical facial expressions, which are determined by a set of five muscle groups in the face. So it happens that the so-called basic emotions of sadness, anger, disgust, fear, surprise and joy look similar in every person in this world. For example, if we feel fear, our eyebrows are raised, our eyes are wide and our nostrils are wide. If we feel disgust, the upper lip warps asymmetrically, the nose is puckered, the eyes narrow. (Global facial expressions)

To be able to read facial expressions is practically in the cradle: Even babies are amazingly good at interpreting the facial expressions of others as signals for their well-being. The basic emotions that are reflected in our faces are understood by all cultures in this world. This also applies to groups that live largely isolated from the outside world, such as some of the natives of Papua New Guinea who Paul Ekman visited in 1966. At that time, the researcher showed the relatives of reclusive indigenous peoples living there photos of certain facial expressions. Then he asked his test subjects which person in the photos had just lost a child or was disgusted by a decaying animal. The aborigines had no trouble answering.

Anger shows up, for example, in the raised eyebrows and the narrowing of the eyes. © Paul Ekman Ph.D./ Paul Ekman Group, LLC

Recognizing feelings helps in living together

"Emotional expressions are central to the development and regulation of interpersonal relationships," writes Ekman in a summary of his work. Through facial expressions, we unconsciously show others what we are feeling, what may be the cause of this feeling, and what we are likely to do next. This type of communication is particularly advantageous in large groups: Even if you don't know someone and can therefore hardly assess, you still react instinctively to their facial expressions. If it looks angry or aggressive, it is more likely to withdraw than to provoke the other person.

The facial expression not only provides other important information. It also influences how one perceives the environment. Charles Darwin (1809–1882) already suspected that those who open their eyes wide in shock may perceive sensory impressions more quickly. In 2008, the researchers Joshua Susskind and Adam Anderson from the University of Toronto were able to empirically prove the thesis of the founder of modern evolutionary theory: Measurements on test subjects showed that anxiously torn eyes widen the upper field of vision. In addition, the eye-searching movements accelerate, which also promotes visual perception. The widened nostrils, a breath test showed, also allow more air to flow into the lungs. In the face of a threat, you are well prepared for a possible escape. And at the same time signals to others that something in the area could be dangerous.

Surprise is characterized by wide eyes and a slightly open mouth. © Paul Ekman Ph.D./ Paul Ekman Group, LLC
We also recognize sad faces immediately. © Paul Ekman Ph.D./ Paul Ekman Group, LLC.

Imitate to imitate

But how do you even manage to interpret the facial expressions of others? Scientists currently suspect that we instinctively imitate facial expressions - and thus can relate to the feelings that are associated with them. This is supported by the fact that certain facial expressions often trigger the corresponding emotions in the viewer: Those who smile at them have to smile themselves, those who look into an angry face usually get angry themselves. The trigger for this transmission could be an activity of the amygdala, which checks the incoming signals for their emotional content and then generates corresponding emotions itself.

Experiments with transcranial magnetic stimulation also provided evidence of this theory of empathy through imitation. With the help of very strong magnetic fields, parts of the motor cortex of the test participants were temporarily paralyzed. This area of ​​the cerebral cortex controls the entire musculature and is therefore also required for facial expression. The consequences were amazingly concrete: deprived of the opportunity to imitate the facial expressions of their counterpart, the test subjects were hardly able to interpret their emotions. No matter how happy, friendly and open he looked.

However, what speaks from one face is by no means always the truth. Due to social conventions or simply to avoid unnecessary complications, we see ourselves daily in social interactions to hide our true emotions, to smile out of politeness or to feign sympathy. Some people even know how to fool others into believing intentions or feelings that they do not even feel. But even such mimes are not safe from experts like Paul Ekman.

“There is strong evidence that facial expressions differ subtly when a smile appears involuntarily as a result of positive emotions or another, or when it is a social or deliberately fake smile,” says Ekman. The eyes are particularly treacherous: when you smile genuinely, the muscles around the eyes are also unconsciously contracted, creating the typical laugh lines. On the other hand, if you intentionally smile, the region around the eyes remains relaxed. It may not be completely honest, but a mock social smile can also have a positive effect. Studies have shown that people who smile willfully for a while feel a slight feeling of happiness after a while. And so may not only make yourself happier, but also others who will take over their smiles.

for further reading:

  • Susskind, J.M., et al .: Expressing fear enhances sensory acquisition. Nature Neuroscience. 2008; 11: 843 - 850 (to the text).