Why That Cute Girl At the Bar Isn’t Smiling At You

We’ve all been in that situation where you’re blissfully engrossed in a new subway advertisement and you suddenly notice the crazy person in the corner seems to be smiling at you. But you’re not sure. Maybe they’re merely pleased by the informative contraception PSA to your left. The bad news is that there’s no magical trick to figure out where they’re looking, and the really bad news is that research shows whatever you do think is likely to be biased by the person’s facial expression. Specifically, we tend to think smiling faces are looking at us and angry faces are looking away from us.

Fifty-two observers judged where faces were looking by moving a slider on a measuring bar to the respective position. The faces displayed either an angry, happy, fearful or a neutral expression and were looking either straight at the observer, or were rotated 2°, 4°, 6° or 8° to the left and right. We found that happy faces were interpreted as directed closer to the observer, while fearful and angry faces were interpreted as directed further away. Judgments were most accurate for neutral faces, followed by happy, angry and fearful faces. These findings are discussed on the background of the “self-referential positivity bias”, suggesting that happy faces are preferably interpreted as directed towards the self while negative emotions are interpreted as directed further away.

On the bright side, if you notice a cute girl in a bar and she looks like she wants to punch somebody in your direction, you can be fairly confident it’s you.

I think it would be interesting to know what mechanisms are driving these biased interpretations of gaze directions. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that we would think happy faces are directed toward us. Having such a bias would increase interactions with potential mates and lead to a higher chance of procreation.

What makes less sense is the tendency to think angry faces are directed away from us. Protecting yourself from danger is nearly as crucial as mating, and therefore it would seem adaptive to overestimate the number of angry faces looking in your direction. If that big Neanderthal from the other tribe seems to be scowling at you, you should probably just assume he is and get the hell out of there. My guess would be that the tendency to think angry faces aren’t directed toward us is a result of more recently evolved emotional management skills. In the long run you’ll probably be happier if you assume all the fearful and angry faces you see have nothing to do with you.
Lobmaier, J., Hartmann, M., Volz, A., & Mast, F. (2012). Emotional expression affects the accuracy of gaze perception Motivation and Emotion DOI: 10.1007/s11031-012-9295-4

4 Responses to Why That Cute Girl At the Bar Isn’t Smiling At You

  1. rturpin says:

    Not all dangers are best met by confrontation. It may be that the tendency to think that someone angry isn’t angry specifically at you helps defuse social hostility. Both anger and flirtatiousness need not stay locked onto one target, even when one person sparks it, but have some ability to find others as their focus, or veer into other emotions.

  2. erichorowitz says:

    That’s an interesting take. I guess the question is whether you’re more likely to diffuse hostility if you notice it and do something about it, or if you never notice it in the first place.

  3. Mike says:

    I would be cautious about generalizing a “we” from this study, before I knew a little more about the sampling. I know that I personally tend to self-reference an angry facial expression, even when I know on an intellectual level that it is not directed at me. I also know that I’m not the only one who does this.

  4. Pingback: Pourquoi cette jolie fille au bar ne vous sourit pas

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