Far from being the façade they might seem, humans are actually hardwired to sense other people’s personalities—not just what they say, but what they’re feeling.
In the “No Talent” study published this week in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, scientists demonstrated that people can predict, based on facial expressions alone, how someone feels based on what they see. The findings strongly support the age-old school of thought that we’re not just showoffs or exaggerated hypocrites, but rather we all have this innate modesty.
“While people are able to attribute their own or their children’s misbehavior to individual characteristics, they don’t ascribe the same culpability to others,” said Stefanie Cohen, a University of North Texas psychology professor and the lead author of the study. “It demonstrates a kind of surface appearance of genuine generosity, but it also implies that they are not feeling generosity toward other people.”
The study participants chose pictures of students with looks that gave them away as knowing other people were feeling the same way that they were feeling. The result, Cohen said, may have been the most robust among those they’ve tried over the years of research, in which subjects could not distinguish between those they had labeled as aware they were feeling negative feelings, and those who they thought were unaware.
There were no disadvantages to doing the test as poorly as possible, Cohen said, as participants rated themselves among the best ones.
People cannot use the study to uncover hidden talent, Cohen said, but it does change the way we relate to others.