“Not face” Same Everywhere

Science Fields

Negative sentiments move same muscles…

A study authored by researchers from the Ohio State University has determined that facial expression conveying negative responses is common for people speaking different languages and even those who use Amarican Sign Language (ALS).

That common expression manifesting disagreement is composed of a frown, pressed lips and slightly lifted chin say researchers in the study led by Aleix Martinez, a cognitive scientist and professor of electrical and computer engineering.

In the new study, the team followed on their previous work in which they employed computer algorithms to establish 21 facial expressions which, besides the basic ones, also included complex ones combining such expressions as “happy” and “disgusted” into “”happily disgusted”. The researchers cite the examples of faces made when viewing an overly done comedy film, or when “the adorable baby poops in its diaper”. So there could also be a combo “not” face simultaneously expressing anger, disgust and contempt, they reasoned, pointing to Darwin’s argument that facial expressions conveying anger or aggression were key to survival before human ancestors developed language.

To test the hypothesis, the team photographed and filmed 158 university students chosen among those speaking English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and those using ALS, as they recited a pre-prepared text or had a casual conversation with the person behind the camera in their native tongues, responding to questions posed in passing designed to trigger negative responses.

Tagging every frame of the clip, the researchers determined which facial muscles were moving during the responses and in which direction and used computer algorithms to identify the common ones.

In the end, a common “not face” emerged, displaying such features as a frown signaling “anger,” a chin lifted up in “disgust” and pressed lips showing “contempt”. Participants from each group were seen to display these muscle movements when using negative sentences.

Knowing that speakers of different languages and signers use between three and eight syllables in a second, the Ohio team found that the formation of the “not face” conformed to that speed. As another significant finding researchers pointed out was that the ALS users often resorted to the shortcut of manifesting their disagreement with a “not face” instead of using the sign for that or waving their heads. 


  • 1. “The 'Not Face' is a universal part of language, study suggests”, Ohio State University, 28 March 2016