Certain Facial Expressions Innate, Not Visually Learned

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

Joyful or sad smiles expressed after a competition are the same for blind and sighted athletes, says a new study, showing that certain facial expressions are innate and managed differently depending on the social situation.

“Spontaneously produced facial expressions of emotion of both congenitally and non-congenitally blind individuals are the same as for sighted individuals in the same emotionally evocative situations.” said study author David Matsumoto, PhD, of San Francisco State University. “We also see that blind athletes manage their expressions in social situations the same way sighted athletes do.”

Our emotional expressions probably come from our genes, and all of us, regardless of gender or culture, are capable of this behavior, says Matsumoto. “Blind athletes, and especially those born blind, could not have possibly learned to produce those exact facial configurations from modeling the expressions of others.”

These findings are reported in the January issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published by the American Psychological Association.

The study compared the expressions of 76 blind judo athletes, some of whom were born blind, with the expressions of 84 sighted judo athletes. The blind athletes competed in the 2004 Paralympic Games. The sighted athletes competed in the 2004 Olympic Games. The matches analyzed consisted of gold- and bronze-medal matches. (Winners of the gold-medal matches got gold and losers got silver. Winners of the bronze-medal matches got bronze and losers got no medal. Two bronze medals are awarded in judo, so the losers of these matches received fifth place.) Both the Olympic and Paralympic athletes represented more than 23 countries.


To track the athletes' reactions at certain points after the competition in the Paralympic games, the researchers photographed their facial expressions immediately after their match, during the medal ceremonies, and on the podium with other medalists. Each expression was coded according to the displayed emotion. Expressions from the sighted Olympic athletes were taken from another study done the same way by the same authors.

From the photos, the researchers found that the blind athletes produced the same facial expressions involving anger, contempt, disgust, sadness, surprise and multiple types of smiles as the sighted athletes.

The difference between a genuine smile showing uncontrolled elation and a polite smile covering up sadness or contempt, Matsumoto said, “is a genuine smile engages the muscles that lift the corner of the mouth upward and laterally and includes the eyes (orbicularis oculi muscles). One of the telltale signs for this is crow's feet by the eyes. A social or lying smile does not use these upper face muscles but instead uses the muscles in the lower part of the face. People smile like this to be socially gracious in uncomfortable situations.”

The facial expressions differed for the athletes depending on what medal they won and what social situation they were in. Most of the blind gold and bronze winners smiled joyfully immediately after the match (74 percent), while receiving a medal (97 percent) and on the podium (76 percent), said the authors. Even though many of the blind silver winners and those who placed fifth smiled less after finishing their match, they did manage social and genuine smiles while receiving medals or standing on the podium. This shows how embedded it is to put on a good face even when you lose and can't see your audience, said Matsumoto.

No differences were found between the athletes born blind and those who became blind later, suggesting that the cause or the onset of blindness had no effect on spontaneous expressions, said Matsumoto

These findings may offer new ways of understanding the mechanisms by which individuals learn to regulate their emotional displays, suggesting that visual observation may not be necessary for such learning to occur, said Matsumoto. “This raises questions of what mechanism controls individuals, blind or not, to learn to manage their emotional expressions,” he said.


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