Cultural Bias Toward Facial Expressions and Personality

People tend to attribute being an extrovert with being happy, friendly, and possessing strong leadership qualities. Conversely, introverts are often labeled as shy, lacking personality, and possessing no leadership qualities.

Sure there are examples of people to support those assumptions, but to me it seems like oversimplifying people. To sidebar for a moment, introversion and extroversion by definition deal primarily with how a person prefers to spend his or her down time to “recharge” so to speak. Introverts prefer solitary activities and extroverts prefer group activities. It doesn’t innately mean that one type is antisocial and the other fears solitude, and doesn’t necessarily mean one is shy while the other is flamboyant.

An article entitled “Your Face Says Way Too Much About Whether Someone Will Trust You” shares some face studies showing that people generally rate a happy looking face as more extroverted, and also more trustworthy. Sad or expressionless faces were rated as more introverted and less trustworthy. But why is this?

Is it that our culture puts such an importance on perceived strength? Is the assumption that social eagerness is a sign of strength, and that anyone who is strong must be happy? And likewise that those who appreciate solitude do so because they lack strength, and are therefore unhappy?

This seems particularly convoluted since most people are somewhere in between the two, (i.e. not polar) so it’s not as simple as “A is this, B is that”. Usually looking at opposing extremes makes it easy to contrast, but the obvious traits of each personality are as much strengths as weaknesses if they come off too strong. For example:

The same extrovert we admire for being bubbly, eager to engage others, and results-oriented may become annoying if he or she talks over people or only respects other “strong” personalities.

The same introvert we respect for their frequent reflection and insight can become detached if they are too withdrawn or over-think things to the point that they can’t make decisions.

But are our assumptions reliable?

In a word, no. The results of the facial studies showed that the assumptions we make about others based solely on appearance and facial expressions were not very reliable. In other words happier facial expressions are poor predictors of extroversion or trustworthiness. Facial expressions in general, certainly for trained professionals. Happy expressions, though? Not so much.

Societal Implications

In the US there’s a big draw toward strong, decisive people who speak their minds. This is seen as a confident, take charge attitude and it garners respect. Being shy or quiet is seen as weak, so people naturally look to those with a louder or more dominant presence for leadership. That assumption seems to be that everyone wants power (or to be seen as powerful) so those who exhibit “strong” behavior must be happy and those who exhibit “weak” behavior are probably unhappy.

It’s interesting to note how differently this is seen in other cultures. We can see a good example of this in the article “Introversion and Shyness“.

Introversion and Shyness references the concept that in many Asian cultures introverted people are seen as having strong empathy and humility, which are attractive traits. These qualities garner respect — much more so than they do in the US. Cultures in this vein seem to value strength of character more than strength of action. Rather than weakness, quietness can be a sign of respect where being too forward is seen as brash.

Perception is everything. We could say that action is better than hesitation, but we could flip it and say that being organized is better than shooting from the hip as a default behavior. We’d be talking about the same personality traits either way, and can make the same attribute appear to be an advantage or a liability depending on presentation. It’s powerful and can allow insight, but is also dangerous. Especially in this example because it operates from generalization that isn’t necessarily true; not all introverts are organized or careful and not all extroverts are quick to action.

When we look at people we’re looking at the same variables. We can observe the same facial expressions anywhere in the world and draw different conclusions on them based on our biases and social norms. It makes sense; bias is everywhere and plays a role in everything we do. But we need to be careful with generalization when it comes to people.

Some generalizations, like saying most people believe in love, are harmless because it’s pretty clear by looking around that it’s true and even if it’s not, no one is really hurt by saying it. Assessments of people’s personalities or competencies is another thing entirely. It’s not simply a matter of hurting someone’s feelings, but that when the generalization becomes widespread it affects the way society sees that group.

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