Body language more expressive than faces

October 24, 2005

Body language can shape first impressions of a person's emotional state, even when attention is focused on facial expression, Netherlands scientists said.

Tilburg University researcher Beatrice de Gelder and colleagues compiled photographs of men and women showing fear or anger in their facial expressions and body postures. Some photographs were altered so, for instance, a fearful facial expression was paired with an angry body posture, which resulted in two "congruent" and two "incongruent" combinations.

Each photograph was shown to 12 participants while measuring their electrical brain activity. Participants were asked to focus on the face in the photographs and decide whether the person was angry or fearful. The photographs were shown briefly, so only a "first impression" glance was possible.

Researchers found when the face and body in the photograph showed conflicting emotions, the participants' judgment of facial expression was hampered and became biased toward the emotion expressed by the body.

The results suggest the brain possesses a neural mechanism sensitive to the agreement between facial expression and body language and can evaluate that information very quickly.

The research is detailed in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Copyright 2005 by United Press International

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