The face is the mirror to the mind, they say. The expressions that we wear on our face, mirror all our underlying emotions. But what of faces that have limited ability to express emotions due to reasons such as paralysis? Are such people less happy than others? They may not be but are so perceived because of the importance that humans attach to facial expressions in conveying social information.

New research from the College of Liberal Arts at Oregon State University aims at studying ableism or prejudices attached to different types of conditions and diseases. “People are more wary and more likely to form a negative impression of someone with a disability,” said Kathleen Bogart, an assistant professor of psychology, in a statement. “Identifying that stigma is the first step to addressing it.”

Bogart specializes in the study of ableism. Her research published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, focuses on the psychosocial implications of facial movement disorders, medically called the "flat affect." Such disorders limit the ability to show facial emotions and may be caused due to facial paralysis, Bell's palsy, or Parkinson’s disease, which affect more than 200,000 Americans each year.

“Facial paralysis is highly visible,” Bogart said. “Everyone notices there’s a difference, but people have no idea why. They don’t understand the nature of the condition.”

To understand how people with facial paralysis are perceived by those without facial paralysis, Bogart conducted an experiment where emotions had to be perceived through different types of communications. About 120 participants without facial paralysis were shown videos of people with facial paralysis, where they recounted sad or happy memories. They were asked to rate the people in the video based on the subject's emotions. The videos showed just a person’s face, or the face and body, or voice-only audio with no video, as well as combinations of different types of communication.

Those with severe facial paralysis were rated as less happy than those with milder facial paralysis across all the different communication types and combinations. Those with severe facial paralysis were also rated as less sad than those with milder facial paralysis. The findings showed that people with facial paralysis were prejudiced against. But another important conclusion highlighted was that humans often rely on a combination of communication channels to perceive emotions.

This means that people with an inability to show emotions can use other communication channels such as tone of voice or gestures to enhance their communication ability, says Bogart. People interacting with someone who has facial paralysis also need to be mindful of these channels to perceive the other person’s emotions.

Bogart’s immediate aim is to help people with facial paralysis to better learn how to communicate with alternate channels. For this, she conducts workshops on compensatory strategies for communication.

Educating people about the sensitivities of people with such disorders can also help reduce existing stigma and prejudices, she says.

“People need to be able to recognize facial paralysis, and understand that they may need to pay more attention to communication cues beyond facial expression,” Bogart said.

Source: Tickle-Degnen L, Ambady N, Bogart K. Communicating Without the Face: Holistic Perception of Emotions of People With Facial Paralysis. Basic and Applied Social Psychology. 2014.