Facial Expressions Key to Strong Social Bonds

Summary: Humans may have evolved complex facial expressions to enhance social bonding. By analyzing over 1,500 natural conversations, the study found that expressive individuals were more liked and better at achieving social goals.

Expressive participants were easier to read and more successful in conflict negotiations. This suggests facial expressivity plays a crucial role in human social interactions and relationship building.

Key Facts:

  1. Expressive individuals are more liked and better at achieving social goals.
  2. Study analyzed over 1,500 natural conversations to assess facial expressivity.
  3. Findings suggest complex facial expressions help humans build stronger social bonds.

Source: Nottingham Trent University

Analysis of more than 1,500 natural conversations suggests that humans may have evolved more complex facial muscle movements to help us bond with each other.

In the first part of the study, researchers posed as participants in semi-structured video calls with 52 people to record natural reactions and expressions during various everyday scenarios.

This shows people smiling.
They were also found to be easier to read and better able to adapt their facial behaviour to achieve social goals. Credit: Neuroscience News

The conversations were designed to involve a range of behaviours, including listening, humour, embarrassment, and conflict. To test ability to inhibit facial expression, participants were also asked to keep a still face while their partner tried to make them move.

The same individuals later recorded short video clips of their face while trying to achieve social goals such as looking friendly, appearing threatening, and disagreeing without being disliked.

More than 170 people were then shown clips from a selection of the video calls and recordings and were asked to rate the emotions and expressions being conveyed to see how ‘readable’ the participant was, as well as how likeable they were.

The facial expressivity of each participant was calculated using FACS (Facial Action Coding System), a method of measuring facial muscle activity.

To test the findings on a larger scale, the researchers conducted a follow up analysis of unscripted video conversations between 1,456 strangers from an existing dataset, where conversation partners rated how much they liked each other.

The likeability ratings were analysed in relation to the FACS results and other recognised measures, and the scientists found that expressive participants were liked more both by independent raters and by their conversation partner.

They were also found to be easier to read and better able to adapt their facial behaviour to achieve social goals.

In the conflict scenario where participants were offered a bad deal in terms of reward payment for the study, those who were both agreeable and expressive in their negotiations were found to achieve a better outcome.

Dr Eithne Kavanagh, research fellow and lead author on the study at NTU’s School of Social Sciences, said: “This is the first large scale study to examine facial expression in real-world interactions.

“Our evidence shows that facial expressivity is related to positive social outcomes. It suggests that more expressive people are more successful at attracting social partners and in building relationships. It also could be important in conflict resolution.”

The work is part of a European Research Council funded project led by NTU’s Professor Bridget Waller. Individual differences in facial expressivity: Social function, facial anatomy and evolutionary origin (FACEDIFF) is an interdisciplinary project investigating the evolution of facial expression and how this results in benefits or costs in an individual’s social engagement. 

Professor Waller said: “This research is important in evolutionary terms as it may explain why humans have developed more complex facial expression than any other species – it helps us to create stronger bonds and better navigate the social world.”

About this social and evolutionary neuroscience research news

Author: Helen Breese
Source: Nottingham Trent University
Contact: Helen Breese – Nottingham Trent University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Being facially expressive is socially advantageous” by Eithne Kavanagh et al. Scientific Reports


Being facially expressive is socially advantageous

Individuals vary in how they move their faces in everyday social interactions. In a first large-scale study, we measured variation in dynamic facial behaviour during social interaction and examined dyadic outcomes and impression formation.

In Study 1, we recorded semi-structured video calls with 52 participants interacting with a confederate across various everyday contexts.

Video clips were rated by 176 independent participants. In Study 2, we examined video calls of 1315 participants engaging in unstructured video-call interactions.

Facial expressivity indices were extracted using automated Facial Action Coding Scheme analysis and measures of personality and partner impressions were obtained by self-report.

Facial expressivity varied considerably across participants, but little across contexts, social partners or time.

In Study 1, more facially expressive participants were more well-liked, agreeable, and successful at negotiating (if also more agreeable). Participants who were more facially competent, readable, and perceived as readable were also more well-liked.

In Study 2, we replicated the findings that facial expressivity was associated with agreeableness and liking by their social partner, and additionally found it to be associated with extraversion and neuroticism.

Findings suggest that facial behaviour is a stable individual difference that proffers social advantages, pointing towards an affiliative, adaptive function.

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