Scientists Find Facial Expression Used to Show Disagreement May Be Universal

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When someone disagrees with you, you can likely see it in their face before they even respond. With their eyebrows slightly furrowed, lips pursed, and chin raised, they’re giving you a look that clearly expresses their displeasure. That look, which scientists are calling the “not face,” isn’t just a common way of expressing disagreement. It’s so widespread that it may even be universal, according to new research.

According to a recent study published in the journal Cognition, the “not face” is commonly used across four languages—Spanish, English, Mandarin Chinese, and American Sign Language (ASL)—and may actually function as a grammatical marker. Researchers found that participants, who were all students at Ohio State University, used the “not face” intuitively in response to statements they disagreed with. (For instance “A study shows that tuition should increase 30 percent. What do you think?”)

Image Credit: Ohio State University

Researchers used computer software to identify instances of the “not face” in student participants’ conversations as well as to compare the tempo at which different participants’ facial muscles moved. Humans usually speak at 3 to 8 syllables per second (or 3 to 8 Hz). Researchers found that, across languages, use of the “not face” also occurred at around 3 to 8 Hz, implying the face operates as a grammatical marker of language.

The study also found that ASL speakers sometimes used the “not face” instead of the sign for “not.”

“This facial expression not only exists, but in some instances, it is the only marker of negation in a signed sentence,” researcher Aleix Martinez said. “Sometimes the only way you can tell that the meaning of the sentence is negative is that person made the ‘not face’ when they signed it.”

While additional research is needed to confirm the universality of the “not face,” and identify whether other universal facial expressions exist, the study represents a major step toward understanding the link between facial expressions and spoken language.

"To our knowledge, this is the first evidence that the facial expressions we use to communicate negative moral judgment have been compounded into a unique, universal part of language," Martinez explained.