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New Study Identifies 'Not Face' As Universal Expression Understood Across Cultures

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Researchers have identified a common, universal facial expression referred to as the "Not Face" that represents 'negation' or negative statements, devoid of the cultural background or nationality the person is related to.

This particular look that descriptively entails a set of creased brows, pressed lips and a raised chin was identical across people, despite the fact that they spoke in English, Chinese or Spanish. Further, this facial expression was consistent even with those people who use the American Sign Language (ASL) to convey negative emotions.

The researchers made a hypothesis that the universal "not face" would comprise of three basic facial expressions representing negative emotions such as anger, disgust and contempt.

The study that was carried out by the Ohio State University, reveals that at the very pace we speak or communicate negatively, our facial muscles inadvertently flexes to form the "not face" expression. It's been observed as an instinctive reaction.

"To our knowledge, this is the first evidence that the facial expressions we use to communicate negative moral judgment have been compounded into a unique, universal part of language," said Aleix Martinez, cognitive scientist and professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Ohio State University.

Hence for the purpose of the study, 158 Ohio State students were selected and divided into four groups. Each group representing the languages English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and ASL, and respectively comprising of students who natively spoke that language.

The students were made to sit opposite a digital camera and recorded, while they carried on a generic conversation in their native language. The research carried out a technical analysis of photographic data, frame by frame, and kept track of the distinguishing movements of the facial muscles. Astonishingly, the investigation found clear, identical grammatical markers of negation across the four different groups.

The distinct negative facial expressions — the furrowed brows of "anger" combined with the raised chin of "disgust" and the pressed-together lips of "contempt" — were surprisingly common and recurrent across the groups.

It was observed that regardless of the language the participants spoke or communicating through sign language, they all expressed the similar "not face" expression while conveying negative statements. The details of the study have been published in the journal Cognition.

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