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We've all seen photos of athletes in their moment of victory or defeat. The faces of winners and losers are usually contorted with intense emotion. But a new study suggests that people don't look at extreme facial expressions to judge how a person is actually feeling. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that, surprisingly, people rely on body cues.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: When scientists set out to test how accurately people can read intense, real-world facial expressions, they turned to tennis.

In top tennis matches, the stakes are sky-high. Professional players react instantly to winning or losing a critical point.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hillel Aviezer is a researcher at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. He says when we look at a photo of a player standing on a tennis court clutching a racket, we generally have no trouble figuring out what that player is feeling.

HILLEL AVIEZER: When I look at a sports magazine and I see the full picture of a person winning a point and he has his full gesture, the whole picture makes perfect sense to me. The face looks like a victorious face, and the body looks victorious. Everything together seems to make perfect sense.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But Aviezer recently did an experiment. He took images of tennis winners and losers and erased everything but the face. Then he showed those isolated faces to people and asked them: Is this face showing a positive or negative emotion?

AVIEZER: People, when they looked at the faces alone, they couldn't tell if something positive or negative was going on, based on the face alone. So this was really a very striking finding.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then he showed people images of tennis players with the faces erased. People had to judge winners from losers based only on the rest of the body.

AVIEZER: And when people saw the body alone, they easily knew if this was a positive or negative emotion.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Aviezer says this is counterintuitive. People usually assume that if they're getting an emotional message, it must come from the facial expression. In fact, when he shows people full images of tennis players - the faces, plus the body - and asks them to describe how they know what the player is feeling, people describe the face. They claim to see tell-tale clues in the players' eyes or mouth.

AVIEZER: When, in fact, it's an illusion. They have this false idea of information in the face, when really, it's coming from the body.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: To test this in another way, he manipulated the photographs. For example, he'd take the face of a winner and paste it onto the body of a loser. What he found was that the exact same face would be interpreted as showing a positive or negative emotion depending on which body it was on. These results are reported in the journal Science.

LISA FELDMAN BARRETT: I think that many people will find this very surprising.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Lisa Feldman Barrett is a scientist at Northeastern University who studies emotions. She says these studies challenge long-held assumptions about the importance of facial expressions.

BARRETT: When you and I talk to each other and we look at each other, we're really looking at each other's faces. That's where our attention is. And so the assumption has been that that's where all the information is, too. But these studies show very clearly that that's not the case.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says this adds to a growing body of evidence that when we're trying to figure out another person's emotional state, we rely on a lot more than just the face.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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