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Expressions and Impressions

Expressions and ImpressionsFacial expressions aren’t always an indication of what a person is feeling, according to two Tufts professors.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [07.02.07] A grimace. A smile. A smirk. To most people, these expressions represent different emotions -- ones we've all been trained to identify. But according to two Tufts professors, facial expression may not be the best way to assess a person's true feelings.

Linda Tickle-Degnen, a professor in Tufts' department of occupational therapy, recently told WBUR that facial expression can be particularly misleading in people with Parkinson's disease, a chronic and progressive movement disorder that can affect the muscles of the face.

"There was one woman we interviewed who had to go on trial getting injury reimbursement. And her lawyer kept getting mad at her because she was not expressive," Tickle-Degnen told WBUR, Boston's National Public Radio station. "Her voice was a monotone. He said, ‘you sound like a whiner, you look like a whiner. Can't you look more honest?' And she couldn't."

Her expression-or lack of it-was beyond her control, according to Tickle-Degnen. The woman was exhibiting a symptom of Parkinson's called "masking," which causes the face to appear expressionless.

"It could look like calmness. It could look like hostility. It could look like apathy," she told WBUR.

While Tickle-Degnen's research focuses on people with Parkinson's disease, Tufts psychology professor Nalini Ambady studies how facial expressions are interpreted in general.

According to Ambady, "we tend to be good at recognizing happiness;less good at catching anger or fear. We're best when we know the context."

But people don't hesitate to make assessments.

"We can make judgments of personality of other people;of sexual orientation;of dominance of faces;we can make judgments of emotions-in as little as 40 milliseconds," Ambady told WBUR.

Ambady pointed out that certain factors can skew our judgments, including culture and geography. "Just as we have accents in our speech, she says, we have accents in our faces."

The professor discussed a study in which people were asked to examine photographs of Japanese and Japanese-American subjects.

"We found that when we showed them without any emotional expression, people couldn't tell who was Japanese and who was Japanese-American," Ambady told WBUR. "But when we showed photos with emotional expressions people could distinguish."

With so much room for error when making assumptions about a person's emotions based on the look on their face, Ambady tends to proceed with caution.

The Tufts professor told WBUR that she has "learned to double check her gut reaction if she doesn't know the person she's talking to."

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