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How to Read People and Decode Facial Expressions?

social psychology, biological psychology, cognitive psychology

In today’s episode of The Psychology World Podcast, we’re going to be talking about how to read people, so this involves social interactions (social psychology) and mental processes (cognitive psychology)

So please join me for another episode of The Psychology World Podcast…

As humans, we can get a lot of information through non-verbal communication. As a result, by merely looking at someone’s face we can tell a lot about them including their traits. For example, we can tell if the person we’re looking at is dominant, kind, honesty, angry and more.

However, the way how we tell these traits is very interesting because we decode these facial expressions very quickly (according to Over and Cook we make recognise these impressions in about 100 milliseconds) but different emotional traits require different decoding strategies.

For example, Over and Cook discovered that when people were looking at sad expressions as well as angry expressions, from these expressions other emotions would be inferred. Such as: dominance and other less desirable traits. They tend to focus on the eyes more.

Whereas, people who were looking at happy expressions tend to focus on the mouth more as it can be easier to tell happiness from the mouth to the eyes.

Why is this Important?

It’s important to look at facial expressions as these give us impressions about people and these impressions impact our behaviour in almost every way. From sentencing decisions to employable decisions to who we think we should be friends with.

In addition, impressions from facial expressions start at a very early age because Over and Cook found that children as young as three years old could tell if a person was ‘strong’ or ‘nice’ by looking at their face.

Subsequently, a 7 month old baby prefers a trustworthy face compared to an untrustworthy face person.

You have to love developmental psychology.

Importance of Looking:

As a final note, I have to stress here that it is very important to have face to face conservations so you truly understand and appreciate facial expressions as they are very helpful and they can help you to navigate the social world.

So please try and make an effort to see people and not hide behind a computer or phone screen all the time.

Overall, I hope that you’re enjoyed this psychology blog post today and if you want to learn about cognitive and social psychology then please consider checking out my books: Sociocultural Psychology 2nd Edition and Cognitive Psychology 2nd Edition.

Have a great day,


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Harriet Overa and Richard Cook, “Where do spontaneous first impressions of faces come from?” Cognition 170 (2018): 190-200. Overa and Cook propose a framework entitled “Trait Inference Mapping,” explaining trait inferences as products of mappings between “face space” and “trait space.”

Hedwig Eisenbarth and Georg W. Alpers, “Happy Mouth and Sad Eyes: Scanning Emotional Facial Expressions.” Emotion 11, no. 4, (2011): 860–865.

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