The truth is in the body?

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nadal crop library REUTERS Rafael Nadal. Has he won or lost?

London - If you find it hard to read someone’s emotions, the problem may be that you are staring them in the face.

Research suggests that it is a person’s body that gives away what they are thinking, not their expression.

When men and women were given photos of individuals and asked to judge the emotion shown, they did badly when just given head and shoulders shots. With images of the whole person, they did much better.

The researchers began by showing volunteers pictures taken of professional tennis players including Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal as they experienced the highs and lows of winning and losing points at Wimbledon. Given the faces alone, the couldn’t tell the winners from the losers.

But with a face and body, or just the body, they could easily tell who was victorious. The key seemed to be in the players’ hands, with a clenched fist denoting a win and splayed fingers a loss.

To widen the experiment, volunteers were shown pictures of people experiencing a range of emotions, from the joy of seeing one’s house after a lavish makeover, to the grief of attending a funeral. Again, they were poor judges when simply shown the faces. In fact, they often rated the happy expressions more negatively than the sad ones.

nadal library The full picture: Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates his victory against John Isner during the French Open tennis tournament in 2011. REUTERS

To further prove that it is the body and not the face that is key in expression emotion, the researchers created fake photos in which a happy face was planted on a sad body and vice versa. Again, it was the body that was the giveaway.

The Israeli and American researchers said that when our feelings are very intense, our facial muscles may do a poor job of expressing our emotions. They wrote in the journal Science: “Much like speakers blaring at maximum volume, the quality of the facial signal becomes degraded and noisy.”

Lead researcher Dr Hillel Aviezer, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said: “Western society has the idea that the most important source of information is the face.

“The research says maybe we should zoom out and try to take a broader look. Emotions happen to the whole person.

“The results may help researchers understand how body/face expressions interact during emotional situations.’

He added that reading faces is still important when trying to distinguish more subtle emotions.

David Lewis-Hodgson, a chartered psychologist and director of private research firm Mindlab International said: “The study used a slightly artificial situation. A still picture is a moment frozen in time.” - Daily Mail

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