Speed of Facial Expression Linked to Perception of Emotion

Two people smiling and laughing while standing against a red wall

Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A study found that the speed at which we produce a facial expression influences others' ability to recognize our emotions.
  • The findings showed expressions of anger and happiness were made more quickly than sad expressions.
  • This information could aid in our understanding of conditions like autism spectrum disorder.

From a very young age, we understand our facial expressions play a major role in nonverbal communication. The human face is extremely expressive and can translate a wide array of emotional states, sometimes even against our best efforts.

This ability serves two purposes in outwardly expressing our emotions and being understood by our peers. A recent study published in Emotion explored this aspect of communication in a new way and found that the speed at which facial expressions are produced influences the way our emotions are recognized by others.

The Research

Researchers from the University of Birmingham set out to determine whether the speed of spontaneous, posed and communicative facial expressions can indicate an individual's emotional state. They also aimed to investigate whether speed and spatial cues impact an observer's judgments of emotion.

Their findings showed participants were more likely to produce angry and happy expressions more quickly, while sad expressions were produced more slowly. They also showed that participants could more easily recognize an emotion depending on the speed of facial movements, as well.

Lawrence Ian Reed, PhD

The adaptive benefits of communicating anger quickly outweighed the costs. The opposite could be true for sadness expressions.

— Lawrence Ian Reed, PhD

This was accomplished through a series of experiments. In one experiment, 47 participants watched videos that were selected to evoke certain emotions. After watching the video, the individual was asked to rate how happy, angry, disgusted, sad, surprised, or neutral the video made them feel. Participants also rated how positive or negative they felt, along with level of arousal.

The results showed the emotional response to each clip typically was contained to one emotion. The kinematics, or motion, of the facial emotional expressions elicited by these videos then was measured in 42 of the participants. Researchers observed faster face movements for expressions of anger and happiness than sadness.

In a second experiment, a different group of 67 participants was asked to create facial expressions while being recorded by a software program that tracks facial movements. The software measured speed of movements of the face overall, while also focusing on points like nose, mouth and eyebrows.

Researchers observed a difference in speed across emotions depending on the region of the face and type of emotion being expressed.

Tara Well, PhD

Communicating without being able to understand another’s emotions and intentions can leave us feeling unsettled and even suspicious.

— Tara Well, PhD

"It's unclear as to why angered expressions manifest more quickly than sad ones," says Lawrence Ian Reed, PhD, professor of psychology at New York University. In addition to being a clinically trained psychologist, Reed's research focuses on expressions of emotion and the communicative functions of facial expressions.

"It is likely because of the adaptive benefits of communicating anger quickly outweighed the costs," Reed says. "The opposite could be true for sadness expressions."

Facial Communication

It's no secret that clear communication has become more arduous this past year with the addition of face masks. Without being able to see a person's mouth, it becomes more difficult to not only determine what another person is saying but gauge their emotions, as well.

For example, we've lost the "social obligatory smile," a facial expression we often make without realizing it, says Tara Well, PhD, professor of psychology at Columbia University. We use it in situations where we want to signal that we have no aggressive intentions, especially while making requests or sharing information the other could person dislike or find threatening.

"An initial smile can go a long way in forming a connection with strangers and casual acquaintances," Well says. "Communicating without being able to understand another’s emotions and intentions can leave us feeling unsettled and even suspicious."

Without a clear view of our mouths, many of us have come to rely heavily on eyebrow movement in our interactions while masked. Thankfully, this study's findings revealed that the speed of eyebrow movements is just as important in distinguishing emotions.

"Even when we lack information from the mouth region, perhaps all is not lost and we simply target our efforts towards the eyebrow region for cues about emotions," says lead researcher Sophie Sowden, PhD. "An interesting future study may be to see if we have indeed adapted to use speed cues from the eyebrow region more for producing and perceiving emotions whilst wearing masks."

Sophie Sowden, PhD

Even when we lack information from the mouth region, perhaps all is not lost and we simply target our efforts towards the eyebrow region for cues about emotions.

— Sophie Sowden, PhD

This attention to speed cues is important in other areas of research, as well. In conditions like autism, research shows the kinematics of movement differ. While Sowden points out that this hasn't been explored in facial movement, specifically, a mismatch in speed of expression potentially could explain any sort of miscommunication in either exhibiting or recognizing the expressed emotion.

While it might be more difficult to interpret the emotions of another who moves differently than you, recognizing a mismatch in kinematics serves as a step toward clearer communication and understanding, as well as promoting early diagnosis.

"Future research may look at whether we can train individuals to calibrate their judgments of others’ emotions to the other person’s typical movement speed and whether this may help them to better predict what an angry vs. sad expression may look like for that individual," she says.

What This Means For You

Our facial expressions play a huge role in our ability to communicate. And it's important to remember that some individuals recognize or exhibit expressions differently, which can affect our interactions. Keep in mind that patience and compassion promote clear communication in most situations.

1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sowden S, Schuster B, Keating C, Fraser D, Cook J. The role of movement kinematics in facial emotion expression production and recognitionEmotion. 2021. doi:10.1037/emo0000835