Jessica Booth
May 01, 2018 10:39 am
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Take a moment to consider how you feel when you look at a person’s neutral expression: do you typically see someone who is happy or neutral? Or do you always detect anger and annoyance? If you tend to think that everyone is always angry with you, science may have discovered the reason why — and it has more to do with you than the other person.

It’s not a secret that many people have difficulty reading a neutral expression. It’s part of the reason why the term “resting bitch face” exists; many people automatically think that if a person isn’t smiling, they’re in a bad mood.

With this in mind, psychologists have been analyzing why people inaccurately read facial expressions, and a new study has led to some thought-provoking answers.

The study, which was published in March’s Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, says that those who grew up with parents who fought all the time have a more difficult time reading neutral faces. These people spent so much of their childhood looking for signs of family conflict, meaning signs of anger, that they ended up not truly understanding what other expressions mean. As a result, they tend to assume something neutral is actually an expression of anger.

Alice Schermerhorn, developmental psychologist at the University of Vermont and author of the study, explains:

To come to this conclusion, Dr. Schermerhorn studied 99 children, ages 9 to 11, who lived in a house with two married, biological parents. The children completed a questionnaire — which included statements like, “My parents get really mad when they argue” — and Dr. Schermerhorn then tested their ability to read emotions with a series of pictures of a couple making different facial expressions.

Dr. Schermerhorn thought that the children of parents who fought a lot would be worse at reading happy, angry, and neutral faces, but she found that these children could easily read happy and angry expressions. Instead, she discovered that what they couldn’t identify was neutral expressions.

As The New York Times points out, the study has many limitations. For one thing, the children were reacting to posed photos of the same white actors, while in real life, they would be looking at moving facial expressions. It’s also worth pointing out that the children misread neutral as happy almost as much as they misread neutral as angry. In other words, it’s hard to tell if the participants thought neutral meant angry, or if they just didn’t understand neutral expressions at all.

Dr. Schermerhorn also stated that it’s possible for this to change as children grow up.

However, as the Times also points out, previous research has shown that a history of depression and anxiety can affect how a person reads someone’s expression. The Times explains, “It has also been shown that adults who were exposed to violence, neglect, or physical abuse in childhood are more likely to see hostility where there is none. This can create a self-reinforcing cycle.” Other research has shown that people with depression or anxiety disorders are more likely to see fear or to read neutral expressions as angry or “generally negative.”

If you often feel like people are angry with you, the Times says that Dr. Schermerhorn recommends “trying to remember that just because a face is not brimming with positivity, it does not mean that is conveying something negative.”

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