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Body Language, Not Facial Expression Reveals Our Situation: Study

Update Date: Dec 02, 2012 12:20 PM EST

Most of us believe that we know some people so well, that by simply looking at their facial expressions, we can tell what they are going through. However, a new research suggests that it is not the facial expression of a person, but the body language that speaks volumes.

The study, conducted by researchers from Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at New York University and Princeton University, claims that body language provides a better understanding of a person's positive or negative experiences, Medical Xpress reports.

For the study, the researchers showed photographs of people who were undergoing real-life, highly intense positive and negative experiences to viewers in test groups.

When the participants saw the pictures, researchers found that their assessment of the situation in which the person in the picture was, had been nothing more than just a guess by chance.

In one study, the researchers compared emotional expressions of professional tennis players while winning or losing a point. The stakes are really high in such games from an economic and prestige perspective, making the pictures ideal for the usage in the experiment.

The researchers presented three different versions of these images to the participants to check how they recognized such images. While the first version of the picture was a full picture with the face and body; the second one had the body with the face removed and the third was only the face with no body.

It was found that the participants could easily distinguish the winners from the losers when they saw either the full image or the image of only the body and no face. However, they were only taking wild guesses while looking at the pictures of the face alone.

Ironically, the participants believed that that it was the face and not the body that revealed the emotional impact. According to the authors, this is an "illusory valence" effect, reflecting the fact that participants said they saw clear valence (that is, either positive or negative emotion) in what was objectively a non-diagnostic face, the report said.

Also, the researchers, for further study, asked participants to examine a broader range of real-life intense faces, including faces that expressed joy, pleasure, victory, grief, pain and defeat.

It was found that viewers were again able to tell the differences between positive and negative situations. But to further demonstrate how confusing these facial expressions can look, the researchers "planted" faces on bodies expressing positive or negative emotion.

It was found, as expected, that the emotional expression (positive or negative) was perceived depending on the body language of the person in the picture.

The study was led by Dr. Hillel Aviezer of the Psychology Department of the Hebrew University, together with Dr. Yaacov Trope of New York University and Dr. Alexander Todorov of Princeton University.

"These results show that when emotions become extremely intense, the difference between positive and negative facial expression blurs," says Aviezer. "The findings, challenge classic behavioral models in neuroscience, social psychology and economics, in which the distinct poles of positive and negative valence do not converge."

Aviezer adds, "From a practical-clinical perspective, the results may help researchers understand how body/face expressions interact during emotional situations. For example, individuals with autism may fail to recognize facial expressions, but perhaps if trained to process important body cues, their performance may significantly improve."

The study was published this week in the journal Science.

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