Consumer & Behavioral Science Consulting

Emotions Aren’t All In The Face

Emotions Aren’t All In The Face

Victory Or Defeat? Emotions Aren’t All In The Face


I’m glad this study and news came out. Recently it has become popular in industry to use facial coding systems to aid in consumer and product research.  In some ways this is great.  Industry should be using psychophysiological tools to make better products.

However, I always give a caveat when asked about a new tool.  And with most of these:

1. If you go to a widget salesmen for help, he will sell you a widget

2. If you are going to use an advanced psychometric or neurometric tool, please please please consider using a neuroscience/psychology expert to help you design your study

3. No one tool will measure everything you want to know, especially in psychology and neuroscience.  There are many great tools and they each will answer different questions differently and not all are usable for all questions.  In fact, most aren’t usable for most questions.

But I digress from this story.

Frequently when studies are done on facial expressions, standarized, overdramatic representations of the facial emotions are used for subjects to rate.  In this study, done by Hillel Aviezer, a psychology researcher at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, used real-life, real-word facial expressions.  And who makes some great real-life facial expressions?

Tennis players, of course!

images (1) images

(John McEnroe, the early years)

Why? Because win or lose, these players have intense reactions and usually it’s easy to tell what emotion that is.

But as you can see in the pictures of John McEnroe I used above, most of this is contextual.  In the first McEnroe pic, he’s looking upward with a strained face, hands up in what looks like is probably success.  In the second, McEnroe is making a similar face, but looking downward with a strained face, hands going down in what looks like defeat.

See the problem?  Same face. And when Aviezer and his team decided to check this out with subjects, using only tennis players faces for them to rate… not only could they not tell the emotion, but they couldn’t even tell if it was positive or negative.

However, when subjects were show the bodies only, no faces, of the players, they performed much better.  Subjects could see from body language whether the emotion was positive or negative.

Now Paul Ekman has done great work on facial emotions:

And it does work and is a great way of measuring emotions.  However, there are caveats and these could prove very very important when running studies in real world situations like in industry and product design.

“These findings add to a growing body of evidence that when we’re trying to figure out another person’s emotional state, we rely on a lot more than just the face.”

2 comments on “Emotions Aren’t All In The Face

  1. Stacie
    December 4, 2012

    There is a good piece on rock star vs porn star faces and you really can’t tell whether the people are really into their music or having an orgasm. Fascinating, thanks for posting!

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This entry was posted on November 30, 2012 by .



The Nerdoscientist @nerdoscientism

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