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Psychologist Says Reading Faces Has its Pitfalls

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Aired 9/4/09

A psychologist at UC San Diego says the way we read facial expressions says as much about us as the face we're looking at.

— A psychologist at UC San Diego says the way we read facial expressions says as much about us as the face we're looking at.

Facial expressions may be a universal language, but psychologist Piotr Winkielman says the beliefs and expectations we bring to an encounter greatly influence what we see in someone's face. Winkielman and fellow researchers used computer animation to create images of neutral facial expressions. Yet they found that test subjects had very different reactions to the expressions, depending on what emotion they anticipated. Winkielman says this is why movie directors take care in the way they order their scenes.

"The same expression of an actor is perceived very differently, depending whether the previous scene was about a pleasant walk in the park or a sad scene," he said.

So Winkielman says don't jump to conclusions when someone gives you "a look" because you may not know what they're thinking. His research has been published in the academic journal Psychological Science.

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