Photos taken in 1967 testing the idea that facial expressions are universal.

Who are you?

Some people are less able to identify or interpret facial expressions

People with an autistic spectrum condition are less able to read expressions, part of a deficit in theory of mind – understanding what others are thinking. In neuropsychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, individuals may see bystanders as more threatening than they really are. Similarly, people with social phobia tend to interpret neutral expressions as negative.

There have also been suggestions that people prone to antisocial behaviour, particularly violence against others, are less able to identify or react appropriately to negative emotions in faces.

In most people exposure to an expression of fear or unhappiness will trigger feelings of pity; someone with psychopathy, though, may simply not recognise the negative emotion and their behaviour will not be influenced to the same degree. This may even be true of younger people (or unsympathetic bosses) who show callous or cruel behaviour.

Young children are not good at picking up subtle social cues from faces. They improve during school years, with a small drop during adolescence as the brain undergoes major rewiring. There are hints that girls are better at recognition (and social skills more generally) than boys, but sex differences are relatively small.

Damage to the brain – due to injury or conditions such as Huntington’s disease, which affects certain brain cells and muscle coordination – can also affect recognition. The ability also seems to decline with age. So one reason why some patients or elderly people might become more difficult is because they are less able to recognise how others are feeling.

Lead image:

This man, of Papua New Guinea’s Fore people, was asked in 1967 to show how he would look if he (from left): learned that his child had died; met friends for the first time that day; saw a dead pig in the road; or was about to fight with someone.

Paul Ekman


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘How We Look’ in June 2008 and reviewed and updated in November 2014.

Psychology, Neuroscience, Health, infection and disease
How We Look
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development