Years ago, I was on a date. It was a setup, which, in my experience, rarely works. But this one did, or at least it did for a while. He was tall; he had cute, curly brown hair. He was a dentist, a detail that felt outrageously impressive to me as a 24-year-old used to dating Millennial men, most of whom seemed to think of their day jobs as quiet places to nurse a hangover before heading back to the bar.
He was also, as I soon learned, impossible to read. He was soft-spoken, but had a wildly expressive face that contorted into smirks and squints I could never quite figure out. Not long after we met, I took him to meet up with some of my noisier (some might say “obnoxious”) friends at a bar. They told a bawdy story about a sex toy exhibit at a museum they’d visited recently in Paris, which made me laugh so hard I could barely breathe. (The story was accompanied by hilariously dirty gestures, meant to illustrate the sex toys’ various functions.)
My date, meanwhile, sat in the corner, mostly keeping quiet — and all the while, he was doing this kind of smile-squint thing that I couldn’t interpret. But I was having a good time. I assumed he must be, too.
I never heard from him again. In retrospect, it seems that he was not having a good time.
As we head into Valentine’s Day, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to actually decode facial expressions?
One of the main problems I have with other people is that they have minds of their own. I thought back to my brief time with this guy, and other awkward social encounters like it, while researching my new book, "Cringeworthy," which is about the psychological science behind the feeling of awkwardness. So many awkward moments arise when I misunderstand the look on someone’s face, or when someone misunderstands the look on mine. In the case of this date, it was a question I quietly obsessed over, replaying the image of his inscrutable (if still very cute) face. What did it mean?
As we head into Valentine’s Day, that most awkward (and commercialized) of holidays, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to actually decode facial expressions? What if there was a way to analyze the body language of that new (or not-so-new) person across the table, to figure out what was going on in their heads?
In fact, some people think that, yes, there is. Perhaps you’ve heard of the idea of “micro-expressions,” most often associated with the work of psychologist Paul Ekman. Ekman argued that our feelings “leak” onto our faces in the form of fast, fleeting expressions: In just a fraction of a second, we reveal what we are truly feeling. According to this line of research, there are micro-expressions for each of the seven so-called universal emotions, which you may recognize as the cast of Pixar's "Inside Out," plus a few hangers-on: joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, surprise and contempt. A crinkled-up nose stands for disgust, for example, a scowl for anger, raised eyebrows and an open mouth for surprise, and so on.
In studies, participants are usually able to recognize these signals with relative ease, which, again, is why they’re considered “universal” emotions. And you may not be surprised to learn that there are numerous articles online that apply this concept to dating. It isn’t a real grin if they don’t crinkle their eyes; what may appear to be a sexy half-smile is actually a smirk, which is a signal of contempt.
There is a flaw in this research on expressions and emotions: It assumes that the way someone appears is the same as the way they feel inside.
And yet there is a largely overlooked flaw in this research on expressions and emotions: It assumes that the way someone appears is the same as the way they feel inside. Put another way, this research focuses on “emotion perception, not emotion production,” Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist who has spent her career studying how emotions work in the brain, tells me. We might perceive furrowed brows as anger or irritation; we might perceive raised eyebrows as a sign of fear or nervousness. But does that necessarily mean that the person is feeling what we think they are feeling?
Scientists have over the years tried to bridge this gap between the observer of the feeling and the feeler of the feeling, notably by using facial electromyography, or EMG. They make their study subjects wear electrodes all over their faces as they watch films or look at photos designed to elicit specific emotions. If people really do always make the same face when feeling fear, for example, then the EMG should pick that up in an objective, consistent way. But these studies have failed to find consistent patterns in facial muscle movements.
Or consider a cuter attempt to find out whether these seven facial expressions are truly innate, rather than something we learn: baby studies. If these expressions are inborn, then you might expect infants to display them even more frequently than adults; as Lisa Feldman Barrett pointed out in her 2017 book "How Emotions Are Made," babies don’t yet know how to mask their feelings when socially appropriate. One study looked at this question, alternating between angering babies by pinning back their little arms, or scaring them with a toy gorilla. Later, coders analyzed their facial muscle movements, and found no distinction between the faces they made when prompted to be angry and the faces they made when prompted to be fearful.
No single region of the brain, nor network of brain regions, “contained the fingerprint for any emotion.” Sometimes fear activates the amygdala, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Studies on uniform signs of emotion in the body and brain have come up with similarly inconclusive results. Cringing may make my face flush and my palms sweat, but anger can do that just as easily. Barrett points to four meta-analyses (these are, essentially, studies of studies) that review hundreds of experiments involving tens of thousands of people, none of which found consistent patterns matching physiological responses to discrete emotions. As for the brain, Barrett’s own work has found that no single region of the brain, nor network of brain regions, “contained the fingerprint for any emotion.” Sometimes fear activates the amygdala, and sometimes it doesn’t. Emotions may not be as predictable as we’ve long assumed.
So you can’t judge someone’s emotions simply by going by what their face or body happens to be doing. And if you have access to a brain scanner, that’s very cool, but it may not get you very far in terms of emotion reading, either. Then how do we ever get this right?
Don’t despair; there may be some hope for your blind date yet. We make good guesses at what others are feeling by taking in the wider context of a situation. This may seem obvious, but it’s worth stating because you do it without even noticing you’re doing it. Our brains use our eyes and ears and memories to take in the whole scene, and consider scenes like it from before, to judge what another person might be feeling. It’s an elegant, complex process, and much of the time it does help us to make appropriate guesses at someone else’s emotional state.
There is something that feels respectful in admitting that you often have no idea what is going on in the heads of other people.
It’s just that faces alone can’t reveal a person’s true feelings. You can’t always assume that a crinkled-up nose means your date is disgusted by you. You can’t assume that a smirk means they’re harboring secret contempt for you. You can’t, apparently, assume that a squint-smile means your date finds your friends’ antics as uproarious as you do. You just don’t know what memories or thoughts are crossing their minds, hidden to you but obvious to them.
Ultimately, learning about Barrett’s work has convinced me to stop trying so hard to interpret the looks on other people’s faces. It’s enough now to know that my instincts are probably right. Plus, there is something that feels respectful in admitting that you often have no idea what is going on in the heads of other people. (And, anyway — in practice, wouldn’t scrutinizing someone’s face like this only make an interaction that much more awkward?)
It’s true that most of us are naturally pretty good at guessing the emotional states of others. But that’s the important part to remember: We can learn to make good guesses about other people’s emotions — but they are always, always guesses. So when in doubt, you may just want to ask.
Melissa Dahl is the editor of New York Magazine’s Science of Us. She is also the author of the new book "Cringeworthy," from which this essay is adapted.