While it may be tricky to say if a face is threatening, our brain may already be deciding for us.
This may sound far-fetched, but as Dr. Harald Schupp and a team of researchers found in 2004, we are hardwired on an evolutionary level to experience a fear response upon detecting perceived threat in another face. While we may not know what is happening, at a physiological level our body certainly reacts.
This research is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. As we have previously written, many of our universal emotional expressions are based in how our faces evolved, such as narrowed eyes to tune out disgusting imagery. Dr. Schupp applies this sort of insight to how we react to a threatening face.
Essentially, the perception of threat in another’s face is deeply intertwined with our fear response. Past research found that we detect threat in faces much more quickly than more positive emotions, and our brains quickly prepare for the worst. Dr. Schupp’s work drives this insight further by looking at the basic neurological response that is triggered upon perceiving threat in another’s face.
In the study, a small group of participants were recruited and subsequently exposed to a series of images representing basic emotions: threat/anger, happiness, and a neutral face. The participants were asked to rate each face based on the extent to which it seemed either friendly or threatening, but they were only exposed to the face for a brief moment.
During this process, brain activity was monitored in order to observe changes in activity and intensity at the neurological level. This allowed them to track both the differences between brain activity in threatening and friendly recognitions and also the speed at which both occur.
Consistent with their hypotheses, the study found that people’s brains show markedly different activity almost immediately. However, the difference between a threat recognition and a friendly recognition was much greater than that between friendly and neutral, suggesting that our brains are responding in a categorically way to threat than to other facial expressions.
Similarly, while threatening faces were noticed much more quickly, they were also marked by prolonged analysis shown by activity in the brain. Our recognition does not stop at recognizing threat, as it does when we recognize a friendly visage. Instead, it continues to process the stimulus in order to formulate an accurate response, such as flight or fight.
You may be wondering how such a dense neurological analysis fits into practical tips for detecting aggression in others or how any of this relates to the goal of being more aware of domestic violence.
In fact, the understanding that our brain has a deep and instinctive reaction to threat helps us be better aware of what is going on instinctively when we see a face. Some faces may inspire a sense of subconscious anxiety or consternation, and this may very well be linked to our neurological recognition processes.
Just as we mentioned last week, better understanding how we recognize threat is incredibly important both for those who are at risk for violence but also for observers and friends who may notice violent potential in others. This is just one path towards a better understanding these issues, with another being formal training in threat detection with Humintell.