Every day we are confronted with a myriad of facial expressions and correlating interpretations. I head into a meeting with a new colleague: Is that a welcoming smile, a condescending smirk, or a fake show of teeth to hide nervousness? What about that look I got from my daughter’s ballet teacher: was she frowning in disapproval at my lateness, or just worn out from a long day? And perhaps the easiest facial expressions to misinterpret: my son glares up at me when I ask him to set the table…or was he just squinting as his eyes adjusted from reading the fine print of his book?
Research recently published in Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience posits that my ability to interpret facial expressions may not be as accurate as I think. Scientists worked with 34 participants to evaluate levels of confidence and veracity with interpreting photographs of facial expressions. Through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers were able to discern varying areas of brain connectivity in response to the facial images. Ultimately scientists concluded that personal experiences and emotional memories factor into interpretation of everyday facial expressions and can ultimately skew accurate perception.
How does this science impact my day-to-day life? Realizing how biased my perceptions could be helps me to take a breath and re-evaluate. My brother used to glare about helping out around the house, but my son? Not so much. His near-sighted squinting is more a function of visual acuity, and not an accurate indicator of response. Just moments after that scrunched up brow looked across at me, his cheerful voice belied my initial interpretation: “Sure, Mom!”
Check out the research: