Body Language Trumps Facial Expressions: Read My Body, Not My Lips
Christopher Philip

Arms thrust upwards is a sign of dominance and victory.

Arms thrust upwards is a sign of dominance and victory.

Body language trumps facial expressions when it comes to the expression intense emotions such as exhilaration from success or agony in crushing defeat. This is according to a Princeton University researcher report in the journal Science conducted by Alexander Todorov under Hillel Aviezer a psychology professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Yaacov Trope, a psychology professor at New York University.

To test their hypothesis, researchers showed subjects images of tennis players that where either, original and unmodified, with faces matching the body language, or doctored images where the facial expressions were mismatched, the losing face on the winning body, and the winning face on the losing body. In one variation of the study, the subjects were asked to judge emotion based on just the facial expressions alone, and in another, just the body language. They were also asked to judged the photos based on a combination of the facial expressions and the congruent body language. The researchers then asked the subjects, based on the photographs, if the athletes were experiencing grief, victory, defeat, joy, pleasure or pain. In all, there were four different studies.

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In the first experiment, subjects were shown only the facial expression, the body position, or the face and body together, respectively. Those who saw the face only had a 50% chance of being correct, whereas those who only saw a body or the face and body together were far more accurate.

In the second experiment, photos were manipulated so that faces did not match the body language. The victory facial expression, for example, was spliced onto the body from defeat. The results showed that participants more often determined the emotion to be that associated with the body rather than the facial expression.

In the third experiment, subjects rated facial expressions alone – with no body attached. This time, subjects rated the faces more or less ambiguously. In fact, their assessments were more often rated totally opposite to the actual emotion.

In the final experiment, the participants themselves were photographed imitating the facial expressions of victory and defeat. These were them placed on corresponding or opposite body images for victory and defeat. Another set of subjects rated these images. These subjects also rated the images more successfully based on the body language than the facial expression.

In each study, participants more accurately assessed emotion based on body language rather than facial expressions. This was the case when alone, or combined with facial expressions. Facial expressions by themselves proved to be of little value to help the subjects decode underlying meaning.

This came as a surprise to the researchers, as previous studies have emphasized the importance of facial expressions and the significance of reading them to reveal underlying emotional meaning. Interestingly, the subjects believed that they could read facial expressions better than body language, but the research didn’t bear this out.

Accordingly researcher Todorov has outlined that extreme positive and extreme negative emotions as shown by facial expressions are “maximally indistinctive.” “People can’t tell the difference, although they think they can,” Todorov said. “Subjectively people think they can tell the difference, but objectively they are totally at [random] chance of determining correctly.”

The overall message of the research is that body language tells us a lot about a subject, “things that we aren’t necessarily aware of.” Facial movements, according to how we read them are “much blurrier” than previously thought. Todorov explains that as emotions intensify, like “increasing the volume on stereo speakers”, that the intricacies of facial expressions become lost, “they become completely distorted.” “There’s much more ambiguity in the face than we assume there is,” Todorov said. “We assume that the face conveys whatever is in the person’s mind, that we can recognize their emotions. But that’s not necessarily true. If we remove all the other contextual clues, we might not be so good at picking out emotional cues.”

The research is important to ready people because it tells us to pay more attention to a person’s body rather than their facial expressions – at least during intense emotions. While the face provides a relative barometer of the amount of sensation, the body really provides the “context.” So while reading people, we might assume that the body is the setting – the context. A person wins or losses, their bodies express it meaningfully and accurately, and the face shows a more broad display signaling the overall intensity – the volume. Together they paint a full picture of what’s really going on. Taken separately, therefore, we should question the “muddiness” of facial expressions during intense emotions.


Body Cues, Not Facial Expressions, Discriminate Between Intense Positive and Negative Emotions. Hillel Aviezer, Yaacov Trope, Alexander Todorov. Science 338, 1225 (2012).

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