Invisible Smiles

I just read an article entitled Invisible Smiles, reproduced in the 4 April issue of the Week. It reports on a study carried out at Kyoto University. The article says the report was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

The study compared the ability of young people in their 20s and people in the 70s to recognise facial expressions. In particular, the participants were shown a smile, an annoyed face, and a neutral face. The study showed that older people were good at recognising annoyed expressions but not smiles.

Younger people were better at recognising smiles. Older people found it harder to classify an expression as a smile or a neutral face.

The conclusion was that older people need to be more protective, so they hone their skill in recognising threats.

Well yes, possibly.

The faces the subjects were shown were real faces. The following quote is from the Invisible Smiles review at Royal Society Open Science. The review is under the title Older adults detect happy facial expressions less rapidly. And it was published 25 March 2020 by Akie Saito , Wataru Sato and Sakiko Yoshikawa

“Photographs of real faces displaying normal expressions and anti-expressions of anger and happiness served as target stimuli; neutral facial expressions served as distractor stimuli.”

Here’s another interpretation of the results: Perhaps the older people were wiser and more adept at seeing behind the smile.

Compare This To Estimating The Passage Of Time

It would be different if for example the older group were unable to judge the passage of time. Let’s say the older group were unable to estimate five minutes as accurately as the younger group. Unless one wants to be truly solipsist, we can all agree that the measurement of time is independent of interpretation. We can all verify how much time has passed by looking at a watch. In the absence of a timepiece we are all either good or bad at knowing how much time has passed.

But any study that depends on the interpretation of a facial expression depends on something else. It depends on the universality of agreement as to what the expression signifies. So let’s say an older age group of people see the facial expressions differently. What does it mean? It may mean that they are more able to discriminate facial expressions.