Facial expression can convey a staggering amount of information—not just what kind of mood a person is in or real-time emotional reactions, but also more complex concepts like dominance and subservience. But a new study out in the journal Psychological Science shows that there’s a way to communicate dominance that doesn’t involve moving the facial muscles at all: just tilt your head downward slightly and maintain eye contact.
In one experiment, participants in the University of British Columbia study rated avatars who were tilted upward 10 degrees, tilted downward 10 degrees, or level (neutral). Then they rated statements designed to gauge how dominant the person appeared, including “This person would enjoy having control over others,” and “This person would often try to get his way regardless of what people may want.”
Participants rated the downward-tilting heads significantly more dominant than either of the other two positions. When the experiment was repeated using photos of actual people rather than avatars, the same pattern was found.
“These findings suggest that ‘neutral’ faces can still be quite communicative,” the authors said in a statement. “Subtle shifts of the head can have profound effects on social perception, partly because they can have large effects on the appearance of the face.”
In another experiment, the team found that the key to the effect was the eyes and eyebrows: when they showed participants faces with the eyes/eyebrows occluded, the tilted head/dominance effect disappeared. But then they showed participants pictures of just the eyes and brow portion of the face, the effect was present, which suggests that this part of the face is both necessary and sufficient—meaning it’s not only required but is all that’s necessary to elicit the effect.
Further experiments revealed the mechanism: tilting the head down mimics the look of someone furrowing their brow—in effect, it creates an “illusory appearance” of facial muscle movement where there is none. Nothing else could explain the effect other than the angle at which the brow appeared to change when the head was tilted down.
The authors next plan to look at what other information might be conveyed with head movements.
In the meantime, the study suggests a subtle strategy for appearing a little more dominant, and without having to worry about what other emotions you may be portraying by moving facial muscles. All that’s necessary is a 10 degree downward head tilt.
“Although some people might consider the head a source of noise that can obscure facial visibility,” the authors write in their paper, “it should instead be considered a platform for communicating interpersonal information via the face without activating facial muscles. Supposedly neutral faces may be less inexpressive than they are often assumed to be.”