The truth was written all over her face. The eyes are the window to the soul. From our clichés, you would think that we could read faces like they were … well, open books. In fact, the skill has more in common with dancing, or writing confessional poetry: People tend to overestimate their ability to do it.
Most of us can’t distinguish between certain expressions without contextual clues. In one study, participants were unable to tell whether faces in photos were showing pain or sexual pleasure about a quarter of the time . In another, when people watched silent videos of the same person experiencing pain and faking pain, they couldn’t tell which was which. A computer was correct 85 percent of the time . Computers were also better at telling that a person was smiling out of mild frustration rather than genuine delight .
And yet, as bad as we are at reading expressions, we jump to all kinds of conclusions based on people’s faces. We might scoff at the ancient Greek belief in physiognomy—assessing character on the basis of facial features—but we unwittingly practice it daily. Recent research shows that while there’s practically no evidence that faces reveal character, we nonetheless behave as if certain features signal certain traits . People with stereotypically “feminine” facial features seem more trustworthy; those with lower eyebrows appear more dominant . In another study, people were ready to decide whether an unfamiliar face should be trusted after looking at it for just 200 milliseconds. Even when given a chance to look longer, they rarely changed their mind .