So many communication mishaps can be traced back to the inconsistency of resting faces. One person's "I exist" expression may project steely bitchiness, while another person's gives off an air of giddiness. Our ability to understand neutral faces further crumbles when we're tired. Studies depict the sleep-deprived as more likely than the well-rested to see emotionally vacant gazes as foreboding. But, we shouldn't run into the same crises of interpretation when it comes to reading facial cues associated with negative moral judgment. Because, according to a new study, we humans all communicate disagreement with the same look.
And that look more or less translates to "No way, Jose" or "Ugh, as if" or "Get the F out of here." In a new paper published in the journal Cognition, researchers at the Ohio State University identified a facial expression they call the "not face." The universal expression fuses three distinct, negative emotions associated with moral judgment: anger, disgust and contempt.
The defining features of the face are: lowered inner corners of the eyebrows (communcating anger), a raised chin (indicating disgust) and pursed lips (showcasing disgust and contempt).
Here's how it went down. To determine the universality of the "not face," researchers ran a few different experiments cumulatively involving more than 200 participants who varied in ethnicity, cultural background and native tongue. In one experiment, researchers assessed how people communicated moral disagreement through facial expression alone (i.e., silently). They asked 158 people to make "negation" faces (which they were allowed to practice in the mirror). Then, researchers snapped photos and compared the specific ways in which participants shifted their facial features.
A second experiment looked at employment of the "not face" in conjunction with spoken statements. Twenty-six university students, who spoke either English, Spanish or Mandarin, had to memorize negative statements and repeat them on camera. They were also filmed while responding to questions that researchers assumed would provoke disagreement (e.g., "A study shows that tuition should increase 30 percent for in-state students. What do you think?"). In addition to studying oral languages, researchers analyzed employment of the "not face" in footage of people communicating naturalistically (that is, without artificial prompts) through American Sign Language (ASL).
They also compared participants' "not faces" to examples plucked from popular culture, including, for instance, a Youtube clip depicting the stank face of a professional soccer coach disputing a referee's call.
The same "not face" emerged consistently across experiments and served three communicative functions. First, people with distinct cultural upbringings used it as a nonverbal signal of negation. Second, it acted as a "co-articulator," accompanying negative statements across three different spoken languages. Third – and this one's important — the "not face" was a grammatical marker of negation in ASL. Signers, researchers found, flashed their "not faces" instead of using designated hand signals or headshakes to express negation 15 percent of the time. This means that, in some cases, the "not face" becomes the only visual identifier of intended emotional tone.
The study provides the first concrete evidence of a universal facial expression for negative moral judgment. Previous research has focused on a none-too-distant relative of the "not face": the negative headshake. But, while the headshake is widely used, it's not necessarily universal. Some cultures, for instance, use the backwards head tilt instead. What's more, researchers proposed an evolutionary explanation for the "not face," and pointed out that nothing similar exists for the headshake.
So what can we take away from this? Whether we're Kim Kardasahian or Kim Jong Un, we all throw shade the same way.