The face is not an empty canvas: How facial expressions interact with facial appearance

Ursula Hess, Reginald B. Adams, Robert E. Kleck

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

58 Scopus citations


Faces are not simply blank canvases upon which facial expressions write their emotional messages. In fact, facial appearance and facial movement are both important social signalling systems in their own right. We here provide multiple lines of evidence for the notion that the social signals derived from facial appearance on the one hand and facial movement on the other interact in a complex manner, sometimes reinforcing and sometimes contradicting one another. Faces provide information on who a person is. Sex, age, ethnicity, personality and other characteristics that can define a person and the social group the person belongs to can all be derived from the face alone. The present article argues that faces interact with the perception of emotion expressions because this information informs a decoder's expectations regarding an expresser's probable emotional reactions. Facial appearance also interacts more directly with the interpretation of facial movement because some of the features that are used to derive personality or sex information are also features that closely resemble certain emotional expressions, thereby enhancing or diluting the perceived strength of particular expressions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3497-3504
Number of pages8
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1535
StatePublished - Dec 12 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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