British scientists say they have, for the first time, scientifically identified the facial expression of anxiety. They say it’s a look that involves scanning one’s surroundings – looking and listening – for the purpose of assessing risk. Dr. Adam Perkins and his team at the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s College London conducted the research, which was published January 9, 2012 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
For something so pervasive in the world – especially in the year 2012, when some people unaccountably seem anxious about doomsday scenarios – anxiety is not well understood. Perkins said:
No one knows exactly what anxiety is. However many animal studies link it to risk assessment behavior, suggesting anxiety can be explained as a defensive adaptation. We wanted to see if this was also the case in humans.
In other words, animal studies show that anxiety is linked to an environment producing a perceived threat. In animals, anxiety seems to be a way of dealing with the threat, by assessing it in the environment. That coping mechanism would naturally involve a heightened perception of the environment. These researchers wondered if anxious humans also reacted to their environment. They studied three groups.
Group One participants – 8 volunteers – heard the researchers describe specific scenarios that might elicit happiness, sadness, anger, disgust and surprise, as well as scenarios containing ambiguous (and presumably anxiety-provoking) threats. The researchers asked the participants to pose whatever facial expression seemed to fit each scenario. The participants did, and this video is a result:
Can you tell which faces in this video represent anxiety? If so, then you just did what 40 participants in Group Two were asked to do. They were asked to look at photos and videos of Group One’s posed facial expressions, then match the facial expressions back to the original selection of scenarios – and to give an emotion label (happy, sad, anxious, etc.) for each facial expression. The researchers said that Group Two matched facial expressions correctly in 89% of the time. In the case of the facial expression generated in response to the ambiguous threat scenario, they correctly matched it 90% of the time.
The researchers noted that the expression labeled as anxiety consisted of two plausible environmental-scanning behaviors: eye darts and head swivels. They also noted that eye darting and head swiveling was labeled as anxiety, not fear.
The researchers then presented the emotion labels generated by Group Two to another 18 participants (Group Three), who matched the labels back to photographs of the facial expressions. This back-matching of labels to faces also linked anxiety to the environmental-scanning face rather than fear face.
The researchers concluded, therefore, that anxiety produces a distinct facial expression, which many recognize. Anxiety looks like eye darts and head swivels, both of which, the researchers noted, are behaviors designed to gather information about the environment.
The scientists noted that:
… the anxious facial expression appears to have both functional and social components – its characteristics help assess our surrounding environment, and communicate to others our emotional state.
Dr. Perkins added:
We hope our findings will in due course help doctors more effectively diagnose anxiety in their patients. We also think the findings may also help security personnel identify individuals engaged in wrongdoing by means of their anxious, risk assessing facial expression.
Bottom line: Dr. Adam Perkins and his team at the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s College London have, for the first time, identified the facial expression of anxiety. This expression features darting eyes and a swiveling head, as people presumably try to see and hear better in an environment that might be threatening.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.