Your orgasm face probably looks just like your getting-your-nipple-pierced face

I’ll bet that when this mystery woman put her orgasm face on the internet for all to see, she was not expecting to end up in the pages of Science, one of the world’s most selective, influential, and prestigious scholarly journals. That’s a life achievement that you can’t really brag about – at least, not without making people uncomfortable.

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From Figure 3 in the paper

The paper: Aviezer, H., Yaacov, T., & Todorov, A. (2012). Body cues, not facial expressions, discriminate between intense positive and negative emotions. Science, 338 (6111), 1225-1229.

The abstract (emphasis mine): “The distinction between positive and negative emotions is fundamental in emotion models. Intriguingly, neurobiological work suggests shared mechanisms across positive and negative emotions. We tested whether similar overlap occurs in real-life facial expressions. During peak intensities of emotion, positive and negative situations were successfully discriminated from isolated bodies but not faces. Nevertheless, viewers perceived illusory positivity or negativity in the nondiagnostic faces when seen with bodies. To reveal the underlying mechanisms, we created compounds of intense negative faces combined with positive bodies, and vice versa. Perceived affect and mimicry of the faces shifted systematically as a function of their contextual body emotion. These findings challenge standard models of emotion expression and highlight the role of the body in expressing and perceiving emotions.”

The experiments that went into this study were elegantly simple. So simple that I wish I’d thought to run them! For their first experiment, the authors pulled online photos of professional tennis players responding to either winning or losing a point and cropped out their intensely emotional faces. Participants (Princeton undergrads) were then asked to rate these photos for their emotional valence – how positive or negative the expressed emotion was.

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From Figure 1 in the paper. Can you guess which faces in B are winning and which are losing?

Participants in the Face condition (B above) were shown images of just the faces. Those in the Body condition saw the tennis players’ bodies with the faces cut out (A above), and a third set of participants in the Faces + Body condition were shown the regular, unaltered photos.

It turns out that triumphant tennis players’ faces alone don’t actually look that triumphant. The average rating for the win and loss Faces alone were both similarly negative (third pair of columns below). Ratings for Bodies and Faces + Bodies, however, were more in line with the actual tennis players’ emotions: wins were rated positively and losses were rated negatively.

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From Figure 1 in the paper

Thus, logic indicates that bodies, not faces, are actually what allow us to differentiate between intense positive and negative emotions. Interestingly, about half of the participants in the Face + Body condition reported relying on faces when judging emotional valence, while the other half reported relying on bodies. The authors dubbed this phenomenon “illusory facial affect” – we think we can judge other people’s emotions based on their faces, but actually, without even realizing it, we rely on body language when faces are ambiguous.

In the second experiment, win and loss faces were photoshopped onto oppositely valenced bodies (win faces on loss bodies and loss faces on win bodies). As you’d expect based on the results of the first experiment, participants made their emotional valence judgments based on the bodies, not on the original faces’ emotion. Win faces on loss bodies were judged to show negative emotion, while loss faces on win bodies were thought to be positive.

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Figure 2 in the paper. Faces 1 & 3 and 2 & 4 are the same in A.

The third experiment was my favorite, as it drew upon a wider range of “real-life situations such as undergoing a nipple piercing, receiving an extravagant prize, winning a point in a professional sports match, and so forth” (p. 1225). That “and so forth” is referring to having an orgasm – the authors just yadda yadda yadda-ed through that in their intro!

Because the internet exists, there is a website in which people upload videos of themselves having orgasms (link obviously NSFW). Intrepid scientists have realized that the site is a trove of potential experimental stimuli. And as a bonus, they get to watch sexy videos and call it work.

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Figure 3 in the paper. A2 is the o-face from my intro.

The third experiment also mixed and matched positive and negative faces and bodies and asked participants to rate them on a number of more specifically named emotions (pain, pleasure, victory, defeat, grief, and joy). The gist finding was the same – we make emotional valence judgments based only on bodies when the faces are hard to read.

So how did this paper get into Science? I’m not an emotion expert, but I think there are two influential findings here. One is that intense positive and negative emotions are basically identically expressed in the face. This runs counter to an influential model of emotions called the Circumplex Model of Affect, which hypothesizes that all emotions can be plotted based on two axes, one of valence and one of arousal. The highly intense positive and negative real-life emotions used in this study lie on opposite ends of the valence spectrum but look the same when expressed in the face. Does this call into question the validity of the Circumplex Model?

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Figure 1 in Valenza et al. 2012

The second finding is the “illusory facial affect” effect. For these intense emotions, faces are entirely unhelpful while body language is a reliable and useful indicator of emotion – yet we often think we make our judgments based on faces, not bodies. I’m not sure how novel this finding is. A quick Googling found other studies mixing faces and bodies of different emotions, but this may be the first study to note our own ignorance of where our emotional judgments come from. Plus sometimes in science you don’t have to be the first to discover something to be known for it – you just have to give it a clever name.

As for what this study means for everyday life, here’s some food for thought. Next time you see a friend or co-worker wincing in pain because he stubbed his toe, just think – you may have just caught a preview of what he looks like at his orgasm apex!

Study figures from the study. Circumplex Model of Affect figure from Valenza, G., Allegrini, P., Lanata, A., & Scilingo, E.P. (2012). Dominant Lyapunov exponent and approximate entropy in heart rate variability during emotional visual elicitation. Frontiers in Neuroengineering, 5(3). 

ResearchBlogging.org
Aviezer H, Trope Y, & Todorov A (2012). Body cues, not facial expressions, discriminate between intense positive and negative emotions. Science (New York, N.Y.), 338 (6111), 1225-9 PMID: 23197536

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