Your Response To Neutral Facial Expressions Can Say A Lot About You

“If you think they look angry, then you may respond angrily.”

Those who believe everyone's always angry with them might write this feeling off as nothing more than paranoia. However, according to a new study, how you interpret neutral facial expressions could be linked to how your parents behaved around you when you were a child.

Published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in March, researchers now suggest that people who grew up with parents who fought frequently never learned how to properly read "in-between faces" because they spent so much time watching out for signs of conflict.

"Angry interactions could be a cue for them to retreat to their room," Alice Schermerhorn, developmental psychologist at the University of Vermont and author of the study, told The New York Times. "By comparison, neutral interactions might not offer much information, so children may not value them and therefore may not learn to recognize them."

"If you think they look angry, then you may respond angrily," Abigail Marsh, director of the Laboratory on Social and Affective Neuroscience at Georgetown University, added.

In her attempt to determine whether conflict between parents might have an impact, Dr. Schermerhorn tested 99 children, ages 9 to 11, who lived in households with their two married biological parents, by having them respond to statements such as, "My parents get really mad when they argue." She then tested their ability to gauge emotions in a series of photos.


While Dr. Schermerhorn originally posited that "children with higher interparental conflict scores would be worse at reading happy, angry and neutral faces." In the end, she discovered that children in high-conflict households fared as well as the other children in discerning happy and angry expressions. Of course, while the Times notes that the study has its limitations — for instance, the children were examining still photographs, not dynamic, live faces — the findings do support prior research: "Those most in need of a benign interaction often have the hardest time recognizing one."

However, as Melissa Brotman, clinical neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, told the Times, there's evidence that people can learn to see vague expressions more positively. In her work to develop treatments that help chronically irritable children, Brotman has found that they tend to "perceive neutral or ambiguous faces as more hostile and fear-producing than typically developing youth." But after one week of training with a computerized feedback tool, the children involved in the study stopped seeing such high levels of hostility in ambiguous faces, while parents and clinicians noticed the kids' moods improved considerably.

As for adults who constantly feel like everyone's angry with them, Dr. Schermerhorn suggests "trying to remember that just because a face is not brimming with positivity, it does not mean that it is conveying something negative." And remember: low eyebrows and eyebrows that slope in like a V tend to convey anger even if the person's perfectly happy, Dr. Schermerhorn notes. Therefore, it's best not to judge a book by its cover. Instead, let the other person's words do the talking, as it also paves the way for improved communication skills.

Cover image via Tim Gouw / Pexels

(H/T: The New York Times)


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