Originally published by Rita Handrich.
Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney had a bad day at the Olympics in 2012 and the facial expression illustrating this post went viral. She was “not impressed” said the internet—and today’s researchers would say the internet was half right. What McKayla Maroney was really showing us, according to today’s research, was the universal “not face”.
Researchers from Ohio State University wanted to know if there was a universal facial expression that spans multiple cultures. They found one and McKayla’s brief expression captures it perfectly. The researchers wanted to see if they could find clues to the evolution of spoken language. It is apparently a common belief that, before humans developed language, we had a collection of facial expressions to communicate emotions. So the researchers filmed 158 Ohio State University students while speaking in their native languages. The researchers used participants who spoke in English (a Germanic language), Spanish (based in Latin), Mandarin Chinese and American Sign Language (ASL).
Past research had established that facial expressions of anger, disgust and contempt could be found in all cultures. The researchers wondered if the three universal negative facial expressions had been combined over time into a single negative facial expression. And yes it has. Here is what the researchers call the “universal not face”. You will note the similarity to McKayla’s “not impressed” face. The researchers describe the expression like this:
It consists of a furrowed brow, pressed lips and raised chin, and because we make it when we convey negative sentiments, such as “I do not agree,” researchers are calling it the “not face.”
Even in American Sign Language (ASL), the researchers found the “not face”. The researchers explain the word “not” can be signed with hands or it can simply be indicated by a shake of the head. However, sometimes, the researchers found, the “not face” was occasionally used in ASL without either the hand sign for “not” or the head shake. In other words, at times in ASL, the only way you know that the word “not” has been used is from the expression these researchers call the “not face”.
This study required hours and hours of painstaking frame-by-frame video analysis. The researchers now plan to automate the painstaking study of thousands of frames of films they analyzed while completing this study and then analyze one billion frames (for 10,000 hours of data) of YouTube footage of people speaking in an attempt to identify other “facial grammatical markers”. If you’d like to read more about this study, Newswise has a nice writeup.
From a litigation advocacy perspective, we think the lesson here is clear. If jurors listen to you with this expression (which is, as you recall, a combination of anger, disgust and contempt) it is likely not a good thing for your case. We’ve all seen this look. Most of us have probably mimicked this facial expression. Now it has a name and we can fear it in the jury boxes not just in the United States but of the world.
Benitez-Quiroz CF, Wilbur RB, & Martinez AM (2016). The not face: A grammaticalization of facial expressions of emotion. Cognition, 150, 77-84 PMID: 26872248
- “I can tell how she feels by looking at her face…”
- You can tell a lot from looking at someone’s face…
- I can tell from your face that you are suicidal
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via Abogado Aly Website