You may not have noticed, but your face sets into a particular expression when someone says something with which you disagree; for example, when someone says,“Monday is the best day of the week,” or “Beyonce isn’t the greatest performer of this generation.” Well, new scientific research may help validate the combination of disgust, anger, and contempt displayed on your face in these moments: Everyone does it.

The study, published in the journal Cognition, found that this expression, which consists of furrowed eyebrows, compressed lips and a raised chin, is a universal symbol interpreted across many cultures as a marker of negative emotion. They dubbed it the “not face.”

This is the "not face." The Ohio State University.

“To our knowledge, this is the first evidence that the facial expressions we use to communicate negative moral judgment have been compounded into a unique, universal part of language," Aleix Martinez, cognitive scientist and professor of electrical and computer engineering at The Ohio State University, said in a statement.

In addition to the discovery of the universal “not face,” which itself is a groundbreaking finding, researchers say the study also suggests a link between language and facial expressions of emotion, which is helpful because the scientific community still does not know where language comes from.

Charles Darwin, the researchers explained, believed that humans would need to know how to communicate danger before they even developed the ability to talk. This led them to believe that a universal facial expression, if one exists, would most likely be negative. Martinez and his colleagues hypothesized that the combination of three basic facial expressions used everywhere to show disagreement — anger, disgust and contempt — could form a universal face that embodies negative emotion.

Researchers had 158 Ohio students who spoke one of four languages — English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and American Sign Language (ASL) — sit in front of a digital camera and converse in their native languages with the person behind the camera to search for a common facial expression for negation. They were asked questions that would elicit disagreement such as, "a study shows that tuition should increase 30 percent. What do you think?" Students from all four groups made a similar facial expression when they responded or signed statements like, "that's not a good idea," and "They should not do that.” Thus, the “not face” emerged.

What’s more, researchers also found that participants' facial muscles moved to make the “not face” at a similar pace, suggesting that the ‘not face” is a universal marker of language.

"This facial expression not only exists, but in some instances, it is the only marker of negation in a signed sentence," Martinez said. "Sometimes the only way you can tell that the meaning of the sentence is negative is that the person made the 'not face' when they signed it."

The next phase of their research is to create algorithms using this new information that can automatically extract and analyze facial movements without human help. They will then take a “big data” approach to explore the origins of language and also hope to identify other universal facial expressions.

"That will likely take decades," Martinez said. "Most expressions don't stand out as much as the 'not face.'"

Source: Benitez-Quiroz C, Wilbur R, Martinez A. The Not face: a Grammaticalization of Facial Expressions of Emotion. Cognition. 2016.