Meetings No 08
Regard me as a human being and I will listen
Atti Soenarso highlights the importance of relationships
Cover Story
Strategic Intelligence: Nathalie Wlodarczyk
We are a private intelligence agency without spies
Meeting Psychology
Meetings in Cyberspace
Hans Gordon on the origins and future of communication
Color the Trees
Our own soundtrack
Brain Check
Facial Expressions
Tonya Pixton: A smile creates new thoughts
Steven Jobs
On achievement
Robin Sharma
The Business of Business
The primary purpose of business is people
Durable Strategy
Charlotta Mantell
Ericsson Studio
Constant Change
Knowledge is constantly renewed and developed
hotel news - New Hotels
150 new luxury hotels
opened in Greece in 2018.
New job
ICCA Board of Directors
selects Senthil Gopinath as incoming CEO.
business intelligence
Calgary’s BMO Convention and Trade Centre
set for expansion.
business intelligence
Berlin 2018 Event Impact Report:
Big benefits to host city.
Business Intelligence
Christian Mutschlechner
oins Congrex Switzerland’s Board of Directors.
Business Intelligence
QODE to crack innovation trends
in Queensland’s vibrant startup sectors.
Legacy Program
Why doing business in Asia
takes more than a single brush strategy.
new meetingplace
Board of Governors approves
Board of Governors approves
Hotel News - New Hotels
The Radisson Collection
Hotel & Suites Paris La Défense Announced.
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Facial Expressions
In June, Tonya Pixton defended her dissertation on the interpretation of facial expressions. Tonya works at the Department of Psychology, Stockholm University. She has studied in the USA and majored in three subjects, including Psychology. Tonya Pixton comes from Texas and has danced since she was three years old. She has toured with groups in the USA, Switzerland and Sweden, and played the violin when she was young. Music, art and ballet play a large part in her life, along with her family and her work.

When Tonya Pixton was studying Psychology in the USA she read a great many research reports and articles from Stockholm University, which inspired her to complete her doctorate here. In December 2001, she moved to Sweden.

What happens when I enter a meeting room?

“You scan all the faces to decide who, or who not to, sit next to. This takes a split second. Our brain determines initial attraction, sex, ethnic origin, if the face is familiar or not, emotions (facial expressions) and who appears to be serious. Also, whether you would consider socialising with them, whether you like them or could get to like them.

“We sense whether it is a man or a woman as quick as lightning. It’s almost impossible to register how long it takes, the reply is instantaneous. In test situations, where the hair and other clues have been removed, the chin has shown to have a great significance in identification. There is also preliminary research which indicates that the male hormone testosterone plays a major part in forming the chin.”

We read red, the colour of blood, in two hundredths of a second. Here you’re talking about thousandths of a second. Has this rapid decoding of the face anything to do with man’s survival as a species?

“Yes, and chimpanzees also read facial expressions, emotions and moods. We need to be able to sense whether an individual or a group is a friend or a foe.”

Can all people read facial expressions?

“Yes, with the exception of those suffering from certain types of brain disorders.”

Imagine walking up a shopping street and meeting hundreds of people. Suddenly you recognise X, who you worked or studied with twenty years before. How is this possible?

“The face is a large and significant part of our lives and we practice all our lives. Our parents’ faces are the first things we see when we’re born. The memory also plays a part. You recognise the faces you are exposed to. But there are people with a very short memory for faces.”

Is it possible to train the memory?

“It’s not my field, but I don’t see why it’s not possible.”

Are there any gender differences in how we recall faces?

“Agneta Herlitz, professor in the psychology of ageing at the Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society (NVS) at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm has shown that women recall faces better, women’s faces in particular. Her speciality is cognition. I specialise in perception of emotions and our research fields intertwine.”

Could you expand on the emotion aspect?

“I look specifically at happy and angry faces. My research points to no gender difference in how we perceive the face and that we notice happy faces much easier. Previous research showed that we discovered an angry face first among other faces as a matter of survival. But that experiment has since been shown to have been flawed. New research shows that we are drawn to happy faces in a group. The explanation being that people seek that which is positive and are drawn to that which is pleasurable.”

Do researchers look at real faces when carrying out experiments?

“Yes at first, then cartoon figures. Something like stick figures where you draw simple lines for the eyes, nose and mouth. Today they use both depending on the experiment they’re carrying out.”

The situation must also influence the face we’re drawn to. In a threatening situation we look for angry faces in order to avoid somebody.

“That’s right. If I were to present the same face with the same expression but with two different stories, people would judge the facial expression from the description. If, for instance, I have a picture of somebody who looks afraid and say that X has come home from a long day’s work to a letter saying they’ve won a lot of money on the lottery, we interpret the facial expression as a person who is surprised.

“A study I carried out also showed that a neutral face surrounded by happy faces is judged as being sad, but angry if surrounded by angry faces.”

If I smile can it affect how I experience things?

“There’s a great deal of research that points to us being able to change our view of that surrounding us with a smile. A lot of things indicate that the facial muscles are connected to different parts of the brain. If we smile when feeling stressed or under the weather then we see the world in a more positive light.”

Do you utilise this knowledge in your work?

“Naturally, especially when I’m stressed and feeling tired, and perhaps not looking forward to holding a lecture. I then decide to smile and things start to brighten up. When I smile, the two stress wrinkles on my forehead above my nose disappear. The muscles are affected and it is so ingenious that when we smile the muscles are prevented from forming the wrinkles. But even the muscles surrounding our eyes are activated when we smile. I smile and my students look positive and naturally continue to influence me and my smile.”

Do you think differently or does the smile lead to new thoughts?

“It leads to new thoughts. I see the situation and life in a more positive light. I believe this, and many research reports back me up. However, I must point out that I’m a person with a pleasant disposition and, according to others, a natural smile. So perhaps it’s easier for me.

“At a conference somebody said they’d started courses in Japan to help people to smile more. It’s not normal to show feelings there. They learn how to smile and how deep to bow so as not to appear false. They then measure how customer satisfaction is affected.”

In many countries in South East Asia it’s important to have an open face and smile a lot, while other countries have a stern expression, far removed from a smile. How does this affect people in a country?

“I have experience from Thailand where the people you meet always smile, which rubs off on me. We don’t consider that behind the smile they might not be that happy at all. We react to their smiling faces. Stern people are the opposite. They make us depressed or sad. It’s always an interplay between us as individuals and the society we live in.

“Swedes are not known for their lively emotions and expressions, but in southern Europe it’s quite the opposite. It’s the same in northern and southern USA, there’s a difference between how we express ourselves.”

What does that depend on?

“I’m no expert, but I would imagine climate has something to do with it. I should maybe point out that research shows that Swedes are just as happy as people in other countries but don’t express it in the same way.”

Is there research that shows a difference in how we perceive men and women?

“My research, and other research, shows that we expect women to be cheerful and men to be angry. This doesn’t mean it is that way, that’s just our view.”

How old are we when we begin interpreting faces?

“A few minutes after birth we begin to look for faces and are attracted to faces. After a few days we begin to imitate faces. When a child sees a picture with triangles that reminds them of the eyes and mouth and another picture where the ‘mouth’, for example, has been moved outside the ‘face’, the child looks at the first picture. A child also prefers to look at an upright T rather than an upside down one. The eyes, nose and mouth are the important things when children interpret whether somebody is angry or happy.

“The question is whether we are born with this behaviour or if it’s acquired by being exposed to so many faces. There is much today that points to us being born with this ability.”

Do infants look at happy and angry faces alike?

“They’re drawn more to happy and attractive faces.”

What is attractive to them?

“That’s a large research issue. It has a lot to do with symmetry, but the face shouldn’t be too symmetrical. A lot of research points to an average face as being attractive. We put together a lot of faces and create an average. Then there’s research that shows that they also look at things that are different.”

How do faces in films influence us?

“We use the face to communicate, both in films and in life. When a person speaks in a film and you can’t see their mouth, you understand less and remember less. So seeing the mouth movements is significant in being able to listen.

“If the voice and mouth movements are not synchronised we discover it in milliseconds. I think this is a good example that shows the capacity we humans have when we interpret the face.”

How conscious do you think we are of being controlled by other people’s facial expressions?

“It’s not that conscious. We scan a person or a group of people and are perhaps conscious of it, but I doubt if we’re aware of why we make the choices we make. We walk through town and scan thousands of faces without thinking about it. You could compare this with not being aware that we’re listening when looking at the other person’s mouth. It’s only when a disturbance occurs that we become aware of something happening.”

But I’m aware of scanning when I enter a meeting room and start looking for somewhere to sit. And the choice is based on my previous experiences.

“That’s right.”

I could sit next to a really tiresome person but I wouldn’t know until afterwards.

“Exactly, the selection process is based on first impressions and that’s very important for us people. But when the person begins to speak and we get to know each other better, our impression and our perception changes and the person isn’t quite as attractive any more. And vice versa, a person we didn’t find attractive at first sight becomes attractive when we hear them speak.”

Is it the voice or expression that determines how I react?

“This isn’t my field so I can’t answer that from a scientific perspective, but there’s an old saying that goes: It’s not what you say but the way that you say it.”

Are there occupational groups that are adept at reading faces?

“Police officers are adept because they practise a lot in their work. We all have that ability. Anybody who works with people gets better at it as they go along.”

Car salespeople perhaps …

“Or they might have a more positive facial expression because they have to sell. They utilise the positives of being pleasant and smiling. We’d rather talk to a person who smiles and we’d rather visit a person we know is friendly. This is always the case.”

Can I practice becoming better at interpreting faces? Is there anything special I should consider?

“If you’re uncertain of what a person is expressing with their face then maybe you should ask: I’m not sure what you mean. Am I right in thinking … ? This gives you a better understanding of the other person than by just interpreting their facial expression. Your interpretation of a facial expression is also influenced by how you feel on the day and the experiences you’ve had in life, along with the situation you and the other person find yourselves in, of course.

“We can also be taken in by a person’s facial expression. I’ve had students who’ve looked totally blasé. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not interested. This becomes obvious when we discuss something and they start asking questions.”

And how should I go about improving my smiling technique?

“By smiling naturally, not a false smile. Research has proven that people see through a false smile, but you shouldn’t smile too much because people don’t like that either. Just be relaxed, cheerful and pleasant.”