Have you ever noticed how some people’s typical expression tends to look angry or irritated? Celebrities such as Victoria Beckham, Kristen Stewart, Anna Kendrick, and Kanye West are notorious for these types of faces. This can be problematic because the person’s facial expression does not match their true feelings, resulting in unintentionally dirty looks. But it is important to realize that an angry or annoyed look doesn’t mean the person feels that way. You may be seeing something that isn’t there.
Being able to decipher the true meaning of someone’s facial expression (truly angry vs. the appearance of anger) is helpful for knowing the best way to approach an interaction. Across several studies, researchers at Arizona State University tested how men and women convey anger in their facial expressions and whether some people were more likely to perceive anger when viewing another person’s neutral facial expression.1
How They Did It & What They Found
In Study 1, 218 male and female participants were asked to imagine being mad either at a male stranger or a female stranger. Next, participants indicated how they were most likely to respond nonverbally to the imagined stranger by assigning 100 points across four different facial expressions (happy, angry, neutral, fearful). Participants assigned more points to the expression they were more likely to display.
Men reported that when they are angry at a male or female, they would be more likely to display an angry facial expression than a neutral facial expression. Similarly, women reported that they were more likely to display anger than neutrality when they are angry at a male. However, when women are angry with another woman, they reported being just as likely to display neutrality as anger.
In Study 2, 88 male and female participants viewed 18 photos of individuals who were displaying neutral facial expressions. However, researchers told participants that the target photos featured individuals who were feeling a particular emotion (anger, happiness, sadness, sexual arousal, fear, pride) but “trying” to hide it with a neutral expression. The participants then rated how much they perceived different emotions in the target’s facial expressions.
Results indicated that when looking at a neutral female face, females perceived more anger than male participants. Females also detected more anger when looking at neutral female faces compared to neutral male faces. Interestingly, results indicate that females were only likely to over-detect anger and did not show increased sensitivity for any of the other emotions measured (happiness, sadness, sexual arousal, fear, and pride).
In Study 3, 56 male and female participants completed the same activity used in Study 2. However, participants rated the photos on four emotions (anger, happiness, fear, pride). Participants also completed a questionnaire that measured their self-perceived mate value (i.e., self-perceived sexual desirability) and sexual availability (i.e., the extent to which the participant views sex and love as being distinct).
Study 3 replicated Study 2 by finding that women again were more likely to detect anger than men. In addition, the results indicated that more sexually desirable and more sexually available female participants perceived more anger on neutral female faces than those who were were less sexually desirable or sexually available.
What These Results Mean For You
Overall, women have a more difficult time than men in accurately detecting true anger from other women’s facial expressions. Furthermore, Study 3 also shows that amongst women, those who were more sexually desirable and available were most likely to have heightened sensitivity to anger, leading them to incorrectly conclude another woman is angry from their facial expression.
Why does this happen? Study 1 provides some clues. Those findings show that when a woman is angry at another woman, they are just as likely to act neutral as they are to act angry. Women likely realize this and consequently have a much more difficult time accurately deciphering the true meaning of another woman’s neutral facial expression. Other research shows that females are more likely to use indirect aggression (i.e., spreading rumors) especially towards women who have a high mate-value or are sexually available.2 So, it may be that women, especially those who are more likely to be targets of aggression from other women, err on the side of caution and perceive anger from neutral facial expressions. As a result, some women, particularly those who are more sexually desirable and available, may be more likely to detect a “dirty look” when in reality, it could be a basic everyday neutral expression.
1Krems, J. A., Neuberg, S. L., Filip-Crawford, G., & Kenrick, D. T. (2015). Is she angry? (Sexually desirable) women “see” anger on female faces. Psychological Science, 1-9. doi: 10.1177/0956797615603705
2 Vaillancourt, T. (2013). Do human females use indirect aggression as an intrasexual competition strategy? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 368, 20130080. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2013.0080
Brittany D’Annunzio is a psychology major at Monmouth University. She is currently a research assistant in the Relationship Science Laboratory. Brittany’s research interests include how beliefs about relationships affect relationship quality and the role of self-concept in romantic relationships and commitment.
Dr. Gary Lewandowski – Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski’s research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.