August 16, 2019
Does somebody you know make you feel as if he or she is “head and shoulders above you” in confidence and ability? Findings of a study recently conducted at the University of British Columbia in Canada indicate that when a conversational partner arches his eyebrows and tilts his chin downward, the effect can be intimidating.
In fact, even “… a neutral face—a face with no muscle movement or facial expression—appears to be more dominant when the head is tilted down,” researchers Zachary Witkower and Jessica Tracy explained in an article published in the June edition of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
“This effect is caused by the fact that tilting one’s head downward leads to the artificial appearance of lowered and V-shaped eyebrows—which in turn elicit perceptions of aggression, intimidation, and dominance.”
Although researchers have investigated how facial muscle movements, in the form of facial expressions, correlate with social impressions, few studies have specifically examined how head movements might play a role. Witkower and Tracy designed a series of studies to investigate whether the angle of head position might influence social perception, even when facial features remain neutral.
In one online study with 101 participants, the researchers generated variations of avatars with neutral facial expressions—using three head positions: tilted upward ten degrees, neutral (0 degrees), or tilted downward ten degrees.
The participants judged the dominance of each avatar image, rating their agreement with statements including “This person would enjoy having control over others” and “This person would be willing to use aggressive tactics to get their way.”
The results showed that participants rated the avatars with downward head tilt as more dominant than those with neutral or upward-titled heads.
A second online study, in which 570 participants rated images of actual people, showed the same pattern of results.
Additional findings revealed that the portion of the face around the eyes and eyebrows is both necessary and sufficient to produce the dominance effect. That is, participants rated downward-tilted heads as more dominant even when they could only see the eyes and eyebrows; this was not true when the rest of the face was visible, and the eyes and eyebrows were obscured.
Two more experiments indicated that the angle of the eyebrows drove this effect—downward-tilted heads had eyebrows that appeared to take more of a V shape, even though the eyebrows had not moved from a neutral position, and this was associated with perceptions of dominance.
“In other words, tilting the head downward can have the same effect on social perceptions as does lowering one’s eyebrows—a movement made by the corrugator muscle, known as Action Unit 4 in the Facial Action Coding System—but without any actual facial movement,” say Witkower and Tracy. “Head tilt is thus an ‘action unit imposter’ in that it creates the illusory appearance of a facial muscle movement where none in fact exists.”
Ultimately, Witkower and Tracy note, these findings could have practical implications for our everyday social interactions: “People often display certain movements or expressions during their everyday interactions, such as a friendly smile or wave, as a way to communicate information,” they said, adding, “Our research suggests that we may also want to consider how [they] hold their head during these interactions, as subtle head movements can dramatically change the meaning of otherwise innocuous facial expressions.”
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