A new study shows that the position of our head can change how others perceive us.

Man portrait.

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Facial cues — how narrowed or widened someone’s eyes are, whether their mouth is turned up or down — can provide a wealth of information regarding the emotional state of those we’re interacting with. But they aren’t the only features we look to for this purpose. New research shows we also look to the tilt of the head.

Getting a heading

“These findings suggest that ‘neutral’ faces can still be quite communicative,” explain researchers Zachary Witkower and Jessica Tracy of the University of British Columbia, the study’s authors.

“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.”

The way that facial muscle movements (i.e. facial expressions) correlate with social impressions has been well studied, the team explains, but the role of head movements in the same context is poorly understood. So the duo designed a series of experiments to see whether the angle of different head position influence how we’re perceived socially, even when facial features remain neutral.

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They worked with 101 participants in an online trial. Each participant was shown an avatar with a neutral facial expression in one of three head positions: tilted upward 10 degrees, neutral (0 degrees), or tilted downward 10 degrees. They then had to judge how dominant each of the avatar images appeared to be using statements including “This person would enjoy having control over others,” and “This person would be willing to use aggressive tactics to get their way.” Overall, the participants rated avatars with a downward head tilt as being more dominant than the rest.

During a second online trial, 570 participants were put through a largely similar task, with the only difference being that they were shown pictures of actual people, not of computer-generated avatars. The results were consistent with those of the first trial.

The team reports that the area around the eyes and eyebrows is both necessary and sufficient to produce this perception of dominance. Participants consistently rated heads that were angled downwards as more dominant, even when they could only see the eyes and eyebrows. However, this effect didn’t persist when the eyes and eyebrows were obscured and the rest of the face remain visible. Further experimentation showed that the angle of the eyebrows generates this effect.

“Tilting one’s head downward systematically changes the way the face is perceived, such that a neutral face — a face with no muscle movement or facial expression — appears to be more dominant when the head is tilted down,” the paper reads.

“This effect is caused by the fact that tilting one’s head downward leads to the artificial appearance of lowered and V-shaped eyebrows — which in turn elicit perceptions of aggression, intimidation, and dominance.”

Even in cases where the eyebrows didn’t move from their neutral position, tilting the head downwards caused them to take more of a V-like shape and were consistently rated as more dominant by participants.

“Head tilt is thus an ‘action unit imposter’ in that it creates the illusory appearance of a facial muscle movement where none in fact exists.”

“People often display certain movements or expressions during their everyday interactions, such as a friendly smile or wave, as a way to communicate information. Our research suggests that we may also want to consider how we hold their head during these interactions, as subtle head movements can dramatically change the meaning of otherwise innocuous facial expressions.”

The paper “A Facial-Action Imposter: How Head Tilt Influences Perceptions of Dominance From a Neutral Face” has been published in the journal Psychological Science.