Posts Tagged ‘expression’

By Sam Wong

Why the long face? Horses can remember the facial expressions they see on human faces and respond differently if you smiled or frowned when they last saw you.

Leanne Proops, now at the University of Portsmouth, UK, and her colleagues at the University of Sussex showed in 2016 that horses respond differently to photographs of happy or angry human faces. Now they have studied whether horses can form lasting memories of people that depend on their facial expressions.

First, they showed horses a photo of one of two human models, displaying either a happy or angry face. Several hours later, the model visited the horse in person, this time with a neutral expression. As a control, some horses saw a different model in the second part to the one they saw in the photograph.

Crucially, the models didn’t know which photo the horse had seen earlier. In the early 20th century, a horse called Clever Hans amazed audiences by appearing to answer simple mathematical problems by tapping his hoof. It turned out he was responding to involuntary cues from his trainer. Proops’ study aimed to eliminate such cues.

Stop pulling faces!
Stop pulling faces!
Pal Teravagimov Photography / Getty
By Sam Wong

Why the long face? Horses can remember the facial expressions they see on human faces and respond differently if you smiled or frowned when they last saw you.

Leanne Proops, now at the University of Portsmouth, UK, and her colleagues at the University of Sussex showed in 2016 that horses respond differently to photographs of happy or angry human faces. Now they have studied whether horses can form lasting memories of people that depend on their facial expressions.

First, they showed horses a photo of one of two human models, displaying either a happy or angry face. Several hours later, the model visited the horse in person, this time with a neutral expression. As a control, some horses saw a different model in the second part to the one they saw in the photograph.

Crucially, the models didn’t know which photo the horse had seen earlier. In the early 20th century, a horse called Clever Hans amazed audiences by appearing to answer simple mathematical problems by tapping his hoof. It turned out he was responding to involuntary cues from his trainer. Proops’ study aimed to eliminate such cues.

The team found that the horses remembered the models’ previous facial expressions.

Horses prefer to look at negative and threatening sights with their left eye, and positive social stimuli with their right eye. In the study, when they saw a model they had seen frowning earlier, they spent more time looking with their left eye. They also exhibited more stress-related behaviours, like scratching and floor sniffing. In contrast, when they saw a model they had seen smiling earlier, they spent more time looking with their right eye.

Many other animals have shown an ability to remember human faces, including sheep and fish. Wild crows will hold a grudge for years against people who have treated them badly, and even teach other crows to mob their enemies.

However, the horses seem to form an opinion about people based only on their expression in a photograph. “That’s something we haven’t really seen in animals before,” says Proops.

“The horse family has the most expressive faces after the primates, so logically they pay attention to faces and expressions,” says Frans de Waal at Emory University in Atlanta. “Horses surrounded by people have ample opportunity to learn what our expressions mean.”

Journal reference: Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.03.035

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2167423-horses-remember-if-you-smiled-or-frowned-when-they-last-saw-you/

By Simon Worrall

wearing is usually regarded as simply lazy language or an abusive lapse in civility. But as Emma Byrne shows in her book, Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, new research reveals that profanity has many positive virtues, from promoting trust and teamwork in the office to increasing our tolerance to pain.

When National Geographic caught up with Byrne at her home in London, she explained why humans aren’t the only primates that can curse and why, though women are swearing more today than before, it is still regarded by many as “unfeminine.”

You write, “I’ve had a certain pride in my knack for colorful and well-timed swearing.” Tell us about your relationship to bad language, and in what sense it is good for us?

My first memory of being punished for swearing was calling my little brother a four-letter word, twat, which I thought was just an odd pronunciation of the word twit. I must have been about eight at the time; my brother was still pre-school. My mother froze, then belted me round the ear. That made me realize that some words had considerably more power than others, and that the mere shift in a vowel was enough to completely change the emotional impact of a word.

I’ve always had a curiosity about things I’ve been told I am not meant to be interested in, which is why I wound up in a fairly male-dominated field of artificial intelligence for my career. There’s a certain cussedness to my personality that means, as soon as someone says, “No, that’s not for you,” I absolutely have to know about it.

My relationship with swearing is definitely one example. I tend to use it as a way of marking myself out as being more like my male colleagues, like having a working knowledge of the offside rule in soccer. It’s a good way of making sure that I’m not seen as this weird, other person, based on my gender.

There’s great research coming out of Australia and New Zealand, which is perhaps not surprising, that says that jocular abuse, particularly swearing among friends, is a strong signal of the degree of trust that those friends share. When you look at the transcripts of these case studies of effective teams in sectors like manufacturing and IT, those that can joke with each other in ways that transgress polite speech, which includes a lot of swearing, tend to report that they trust each other more.

One of the reasons why there’s probably this strong correlation is that swearing has such an emotional impact. You’re demonstrating that you have a sophisticated theory of mind about the person that you’re talking to, and that you have worked out where the limit is between being shocking enough to make them giggle or notice you’ve used it but not so shocking that they’ll be mortally offended. That’s a hard target to hit right in the bullseye. Using swear words appropriate for that person shows how well you know them; and how well you understand their mental model.

You were inspired to write this book by a study carried out by Dr. Richard Stephens. Tell us about the experiment, and why it was important in our understanding of swearing.

Richard Stephens works out of Keele University in the U.K. He’s a behavioral psychologist, who is interested in why we do things that we’ve been told are bad for us. For years, the medical profession has been saying that swearing is incredibly bad for you if you’re in pain. It’s what’s called a “catastrophizing response,” focusing on the negative thing that’s happened. His take on this was, if it’s so maladaptive, why do we keep doing it?

He initially had 67 volunteers, although he’s replicated this multiple times. He stuck their hands in ice water and randomized whether or not they were using a swear word or a neutral word and compared how long they could keep their hands in ice water. On average, when they were swearing they could keep their hands in the iced water for half as long again as when they were using a neutral word. This shows that the results are anything but maladaptive. Swearing really does allow you to withstand pain for longer.

Have men always sworn more than women? And, if so, why?

Definitely not! Historians of the English language describe how women were equally praised for their command of exceedingly expressive insults and swearing, right up to the point in 1673 when a book by Richard Allestree was published titled The Ladies Calling.” Allestree says that women who swear are acting in a way that is biologically incompatible with being a woman and, as a result, will begin to take on masculine characteristics, like growing facial hair or becoming infertile. He wrote, “There is no sound more odious to the ears of God than an oath in the mouth of a woman.”

Today we are horribly still in the same place on men versus women swearing. Although women are still considered to swear less than men, we know from studies that they don’t. They swear just as much as men. But attitudinal surveys show that both men and women tend to judge women’s swearing much more harshly. And that judgement can have serious implications. For example, when women with breast cancer or arthritis swear as a result of their condition, they’re much more likely to lose friends, particularly female friends. Whereas men who swear about conditions like testicular cancer tend to bond more closely with other men using the same vocabulary. The idea that swearing is a legitimate means of expressing a negative emotion is much more circumscribed for women.

I was fascinated to discover that it’s not just humans that swear—primates do it, too! Tell us about Project Washoe.

Out in the wild, chimps are inveterate users of their excrement to mark their territory or show their annoyance. So the first thing you do, if you want to teach a primate sign language, is potty train them. That means, just like human children at a similar age, that they end up with a taboo around excrement. In Project Washoe, the sign for “dirty” was bringing the knuckles up to the underside of the chin. And what happened spontaneously, without the scientists teaching them, was that the chimps started to use the sign for “dirty” in exactly the same way as we use our own excremental swear words.

Washoe was a female chimpanzee that was originally adopted by R. Allen Gardner and Beatrix T. Gardner in the 1960s. Later, she was taken on by a researcher in Washington State called Roger Fouts. Washoe was the matriarch to three younger chimps: Loulis, Tatu, and Dar. By the time they brought in Loulis, the youngest, the humans had stopped teaching them language, so they looked to see if the chimps would transmit language through the generations, which they did.

Not only that: as soon as they had internalized the toilet taboo, with the sign “dirty” as something shameful, they started using that sign as an admonition or to express anger, like a swear word. When Washoe and the other chimps were really angry, they would smack their knuckles on the underside of their chins, so you could hear this chimp-teeth-clacking sound.

Washoe and the other chimps would sign things like “Dirty Roger!” or “Dirty Monkey!” when they were angry. The humans hadn’t taught them this! What had happened is that they had internalized that taboo, they had a sign associated with that taboo, so all of a sudden that language was incredibly powerful and was being thrown about, just like real excrement is thrown about by wild chimpanzees.

You say, “swearing is a bellwether—a foul-beaked canary in the coalmine—that tells us what our social taboos are.” Unpack that idea for us, and how it has changed over the centuries.

The example that most people will be familiar with in English-speaking countries is blasphemy. There are still parts of the U.S. that are more observant of Christianity than others but, in general, the kinds of language that would have resulted in censorship in other eras is now freely used in print and TV media. However, the “n-word,” which was once used as the title of an Agatha Christie book and even in nursery rhymes, is now taboo because there is a greater awareness that it is a painful reminder of how African-Americans suffered because of racism over the centuries. In some communities, where that usage is reclaimed, they are saying that if I use it, it immunizes me against its negative effects.

That is an example of a word that has fallen out of general conversation and literature into the realm of the unsayable. It’s quite different from the copulatory or excretory swearing in that it is so divisive. The great thing about the copulatory and excretory swearing is that they are common to the entire human race.


In the digital world, you can swear at someone without actually being face to face. Is this changing the way we curse? And what will swearing in tomorrow’s world look like?

One of the difficulties with swearing in online discourse is that there is no face-to-face repercussion, so it allows people to lash out without seeing the person that they’re speaking to as fully human. But it’s not swearing that is the problem. It’s possible to say someone is worth less as a human being based on their race, gender or sexuality using the most civil of language. For example, when Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton “a nasty woman” rather than using the c-word, most of us were able to break the code. We knew what he meant but because he hadn’t sworn it was seen as acceptable discourse.

In the future, I think that swearing will inevitably be reinvented; we’ve seen it change so much over the years. As our taboos change, that core of language that has the ability to surprise, shock or stun the emotional side of the brain will change, too. But I can’t predict where those taboos will go.

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/01/science-swearing-profanity-curse-emma-byrne/

By David Robson

You might expect a great philosopher to look past our surface into the depths of the soul – but Ancient Greek thinkers were surprisingly concerned with appearance. Aristotle and his followers even compiled a volume of the ways that your looks could reflect your spirit.

“Soft hair indicates cowardice and coarse hair courage,” they wrote. Impudence, the treatise says, was evident in “bright, wise-open eyes with heavy blood-shot lids”; a broad nose, meanwhile, was a sign of laziness, like in cattle.

Sensuous, fleshy lips fared little better. The philosophers saw it as a sign of folly, “like an ass”, while those with especially thin mouths were thought to be proud, like lions.

Today, we are taught not to judge a book by its cover. But while it is wise not to set too much by appearances, psychologists are finding that your face offers a window on our deepest secrets. Even if you keep a stony poker face, your features can reveal details about your personality, your health, and your intelligence.

“The idea is that our biology, like genes and hormone levels, influences our growth, and the same mechanisms will also shape our character,” explains Carmen Lefevre at Northumbria University.

Consider the face’s bone structure – whether it is relatively short and wide or long and thin. Lefevre has found that people with higher levels of testosterone tend to be wider-faced with bigger cheekbones, and they are also more likely to have more assertive, and sometimes aggressive, personalities.

The link between face shape and dominance is surprisingly widespread, from capuchin monkeys – the wider the face, the more likely they are to hold a higher rank in the group’s hierarchy – to professional football players. Examining the 2010 World Cup, Keith Welker at the University of Boulder, Colorado, recently showed that the ratio of the width and height of the footballers’ faces predicted both the number of fouls among midfielders, and the number of goals scored by the forwards.

(To calculate this yourself, compare the distance from ear-to-ear with the distance between the top of your eyes, and your upper lip. The average ratio of width-to-height is around 2 – Abraham Lincoln was 1.93)

It may even clue you in to a politician’s motives. Using volunteers to rate former US presidents on different psychological attributes, Lefevre found that face shape seemed to reflect their perceived ambition and drive. John F Kennedy had a thicker-set face than 19th Century Chester Arthur, for instance. Such analyses of historical figures are perhaps best taken with a pinch of salt, however, and it has to be said that other traits, such as cooperation and intelligence, should be equally important for success.

As you might expect, your health and medical history are also written in your countenance – and the detail it offers is surprising. The amount of fat on your face, for instance, provides a stronger indication of your fitness than more standard measures, such as your body mass index. Those with thinner faces are less likely to suffer infections, and when they do, the illness is less severe; they also tend to have lower rates of depression and anxiety, probably because mental health is often closely related to the body’s fitness in general.

How could the plumpness of your cheeks say so much about you? Benedict Jones at the University of Glasgow thinks a new understanding of fat’s role in the body may help explain it. “How healthy you are isn’t so much about how much fat you have, but where you have that fat,” he says. Pear-shaped people, with more weight around the hips and bottom but slimmer torsos, tend to be healthier than “apples” with a spare tyre around the midriff, since the adipose tissue around the chest is thought to release inflammatory molecules that can damage the core organs. Perhaps the fullness of your face reflects the fatty deposits in the more harmful areas, Jones says. Or it could be that facial fat is itself dangerous for some reason.

Besides these more overt cues, very subtle differences in skin colour can also reveal your health secrets. Jones and Lefevre emphasise this has nothing to do with the tones associated with ethnicity, but barely-noticeable tints that may reflect differences in lifestyle. You appear to be in more robust health, for instance, if your skin has a slightly yellowish, golden tone. The pigments in question are called carotenoids, which, as the name suggest, can be found in orange and red fruit and veg. Carotenoids help build a healthy immune system, says Lefevre. “But when we’ve eaten enough, they layer in the skin and dye it yellow. We exhibit them, because we haven’t used them to battle illness.” The glow of health, in turn, contributes significantly to your physical attraction – more so, in fact, than the more overt tones that might accompany a trip to the tanning salon.

A blush of pink, meanwhile, should signal the good circulation that comes with an active lifestyle – and it might also be a sign of a woman’s fertility. Jones has found that women tend to adopt a slightly redder flush at the peak of the menstrual cycle, perhaps because estradiol, a sex hormone, leads the blood vessels in the cheek to dilate slightly. It may be one of many tiny shifts in appearance and behaviour that together make a woman slightly more attractive when she is most likely to conceive.

As Jones points out, these secrets were hiding in plain sight – yet we were slow to uncover them. At the very least, this knowledge helps restore the reputation of “physiognomy”, which has suffered a somewhat chequered reputation since Aristotle’s musings. Tudor king Henry VIII was so sceptical of the idea that he even banned quack “professors” from profiting from their readings, and its status took a second bashing in the early 20th Century, when it was associated with phrenology – the mistaken idea that lumps and bumps on your head can predict your behaviour.

But now the discipline is gaining credibility, we may find that there are many more surprises hiding in your selfies. Intriguingly, we seem to be able to predict intelligence from someone’s face with modest accuracy – though it’s not yet clear what specific cues make someone look smart. (Needless to say, it is not as simple as whether or not they wear glasses.) Others are examining the “gaydar”. We often can guess someone’s sexual orientation within a split-second, even when there are no stereotypical clues, but it’s still a mystery as to what we’re actually reading. Further research might explain exactly how we make these snap judgements.

It will also be interesting to see how the link between personality, lifestyle and appearance changes across the lifetime. One study managed to examine records of personality and appearance, following subjects from the 1930s to the 1990s. The scientists found that although baby-faced men tended to be less dominant in their youth, they grew to be more assertive as the years wore on – perhaps because they learnt to compensate for the expectations brought about by their puppyish appearance.

More intriguingly, the authors also found evidence of a “Dorian Gray effect” – where the ageing face began to reflect certain aspects of the personality that hadn’t been obvious when the people were younger. Women who had more attractive, sociable, personalities from adolescence to their 30s slowly started to climb in physical attractiveness, so that in their 50s they were considered better-looking than those who had been less personable but naturally prettier. One possibility is that they simply knew how to make the best of their appearance, and that their inner confidence was reflected on subtle differences in expression.

After all, there is so much more to our appearance than the bone structure and skin tone, as one particularly clever study recently demonstrated. The scientists asked volunteers to wear their favourite clothes, and then took a photo of their face. Even though the clothes themselves were not visible in the mugshots, impartial judges considered them to be considerably more attractive than other pictures of the participants. The finding is particularly striking, considering that they were asked to keep neutral expressions: somehow, the boosted self-esteem shone through anyway.

Our faces aren’t just the product of our biology. We can’t change our genes or our hormones – but by cultivating our personality and sense of self-worth, they may begin to mirror something far more important.

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150312-what-the-face-betrays-about-you