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What’s in a smirk?

smirking emoji
When we see a politician smirk, we all know exactly what it means. At least we think we do, explains Dr Elisabeth Blagrove from the University of Warwick’s Department of Psychology.

It’s easy to assume that we know exactly what someone means when we try to read the signals of their facial features. In fact, this is so much part of our everyday lives, that unless something about this signal surprises or alarms us, we may not even be aware that we’re processing that information. Certainly, there’s strong evidence that the brain is exquisitely attuned to facial signals. For example, we process facial information rapidly (in less than 0.25 seconds), focused attention isn’t required for that processing, and as a result we don’t need to dedicate precious high-level brain resource to it. This process can be so automatic that we sometimes see faces in our visual environment when none are present.

Yet often, even when we are unaware of this processing or the context of the facial emotion itself, we may feel sure of what we are seeing. We think we know what that person is experiencing and the message they intend to share with the world.

But from a psychological science point of view, nothing could be further from the truth Take, for example, an individual who is neurodivergent- perhaps on the autism spectrum. The literature documents some of the problems that someone who is neurodivergent may have in processing facial emotion - the potential for confusion, miscommunication and distress is immense. Simply because that individual is wired in a way that means their brain struggles to process those facial emotion signals.

That said, the potential for confusion and miscommunication is not restricted to specific areas of individual difference. Rather, this is located in the nuance of what the facial emotion itself means.

What lies behind the signals that we see in that face?

First of all, we can focus on the person sending the emotional signal. They may have a psychological need to externalize something in their inner world. For example, an emotion they feel unable to contain like joy, fear or anger. Or they may intend, consciously, to show the rest of us a particular expression, knowing the message that we are likely to infer.

But what’s equally important is the idea that an emotional signal implies someone who will receive that signal, as well as someone who will send it and this gives weight to both roles within that social interaction. In this case, the signal may aim to elicit a particular response like irritation or sympathy, or more directly, to induce a particular action from the observer. Imagine here the stereotype of the ‘what you looking at?’ expression. No-one is likely to argue with that signal and its implicit requests unless they’re actually looking for a fight.

So where does this leave us with the politician’s smirk? Is there still more to the story?

Given the complexity of human behaviour, the answer is nearly always yes.

We may have decided we know what the emotion we observe ‘means’ in the context of what’s expressed and what is intended, but we still need to acknowledge what we, the observer, bring to the table. The evidence here is that we’re unlikely to be as clear-sighted, or unbiased as we might anticipate.

When humans are shown ambiguous facial emotion, we tend to assume that the expression has negative meaning. The brain will process the signal in the same way as it will any expression that denotes potential threat more clearly like anger, fear, sorrow or disgust, until the point it can be more certain that a threat response isn’t necessary. More relevant here, the expectations and prior experiences we have as humans can colour the way we interpret those signals - priming the interpretation to bring it in line with our beliefs and values.

Our current political climate gives us a neat example to examine this idea.

Say, for example, we are already primed to the smirks of one politician, we may have decided (because of our previous experience/expectations of this individual) what a smirk on the face of any politician means.

But can we be sure? Of course, not. The sophistication of human emotion expression and social communication norms are so tightly interwoven here, we can only surmise. In addition, the fleeting nature of true facial emotion (compared to pretence) and the relatively automatic processing involved, suggest the signaller may not even realize the expression they are displaying. But does this matter? Not in the slightest.

Is the politician smirking? Definitely. What does it mean? Whatever you want it to.


4 February 2022


eblagrove.jpgDr Liz Blagrove is a senior teaching fellow in the Department of Pyschology. She has a particular interest in selective attention, processing of emotional faces, social attention and cognitive ethology.

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