A Facial Expression for Anxiety?

MedicalXpress is reporting on a paper that suggests a facial expression for anxiety:

Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s College London have, for the first time, identified the facial expression of anxiety. The facial expression for the emotion of anxiety comprises an environmental scanning look that appears to aid risk assessment.

Per the abstract, researchers presented 8 volunteers with emotional scenarios and had them pose facial expressions. Photographs and videos of the posed expressions were shown to 40 participants. The participants were asked to match the emotional scenarios and to provide a label for the expression. 18 separate participants were then asked to match the labels provided by the first group to the photographs of the posed expressions.

A majority of the participants labeled a posed expression for an ambiguous threat (e.g. seeing a predator’s footprints) as anxiety. The posed expression for an unambiguous threat (e.g. actually seeing the predator) was correlated with the label of fear.

According to the study, the facial expression for anxiety included “eye darts” and “head swivels”. Since “eye darts” and “head swivels” aren’t actual movements, I’m hazarding a guess that they meant turning the head and eyes. You can find the original paper here, and see the movie used in the study here.

I’m sure Paul Ekman,David Matsumoto,and Maggie Pazian can find a lot of things to explore further, but I noticed a few items of interest right off the bat:

  1. If you look at the “anxiety expression” in the movie, it includes more than just turning the head and eyes. Notably there is a sucking in of the lower lip (AU 28 1), and the subject appears to lean backward after the scanning (which could be interpreted as a flight response.)
  2. I find it interesting that the facial expression is described in terms of multiple distinct movements, yet the second set of participants were only given still photographs. I’d be curious to see the photographs that were used.
  3. The researchers did not claim this to be a universally recognized expression. Although they did suggest a threat response as a possible source of motivation.

While this is definitely interesting, remember that it is just one study. There needs to be additional research and scientific inquiry before reaching a conclusion.

UPDATE: Humintell has posted some thoughts on the paper.

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  1. Actions units other than AU 28 are also present