Updated: May 23
I first encountered this concept when listening to a podcast by Dr Jordan Peterson. The gist of the concept is that eyebrows are a fantastic revealer of personality, power and authority. Peterson used the animation of the lion king as an example, where you can take an animated lion, apply a touch of personification, and voila you can know exactly how powerful and mature the lion is by only looking at it’s eyebrows. The image to the right shows a vignette of eyebrows (I assume you recognise a few of them) and naturally I have included two from the Lion King.
After listening to Peterson’s podcast, I have found myself unable to stop noticing eyebrows wherever I look, whether it be in politicians, in people I encounter or even my own. I’ve read a decent amount of the scientific and medical literature (as far as a non-scientist, non-medic can be expected to do) and notwithstanding the specific quotes I give in this piece I will try to focus on this from a more philosophical standpoint.
Seven basic emotions
David Matsumoto appears to be one of the most prolific researchers in this area, however, this concept goes all the way back to Charles Darwin, who is often credited as the person who set its foundations. I have mostly read Mutsomoto’s work here, and suggest you have a read of his work. I would love to include some of his diagrams, but I don’t want to get sued for copyright infringement. Anyways, my understanding of his work is that there are seven basic emotion groups, and each of them carries a clear type of facial expression. They are listed below and please visualize these in your own mind:
With this broad range of emotions, and considering that each of these has subsets and subsets again. It is no wonder that we possess the need for a large array of facial expressions to accurately convey our message. Consider some of our cousin’s actions which convey a message, such as: a dog wagging or tucking it’s tail, parrotfish changing colour, salmon doing the same to indicate or fertility, even the dance of the peacock. Unfortunately, we do not possess the same biological abilities to make these expressions. Often, we do it in the form of our clothing and makeup, but in its absence, we are left with few resources on our own.
Anger or hostility is very easy to notice when looking at eyes. An inward inflection of the inner eyebrow and furrowing of the skin above the bridge of the nose and even a furrowing of the nose itself. A snarl can be imagined. Think of Will Smith at the latest Oscars in mid-flight. The extremes of this type of expression are somewhat resemblant to a dog barring its teeth.
The effects of an angry facial expression are fairly self-explanatory, where people showing sings of anger are thought to be less trustworthy and more dominant. Conversely, people with happy or neutral facial expressions are thought to be more trustworthy but less dominant (this information comes from scientific studies, but really, this isn’t a scientific journal).
What are the actual practical lessons that can be learnt from this? In a perfect world, one would hope that someone’s facial expressions are a true insight to that person’s mood or emotion as in relation to what they are saying. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The world is replete with pathological liars, and this purpose of this article isn’t to suggest ways to appear more trustworthy when speaking about something; that idea skirts too close to psychopathy. The true power in understanding this field is through analysis. Consider the above images, and ask yourself the following question:
Who do you find to be the most trustworthy, and what expression do they have?
Who do you find to be the least trustworthy, and what expression do they have?
Interestingly I find the least and most trustworthy people in the montage to have neutral expressions. Additionally, I find that the two least dominant figures (one is a lion) to have surprised expressions, two have a slightly angry expression, one has a very angry expression and there is one outlier.
One of the images above has a fairly dull and glazed expression to it. It has the excessive use of a smile to try and cover the shortcoming, but not quite enough to pale it over. Unfortunately, cognitive diseases and diseases of the mind carry with them physiological effects in addition to the main symptoms. Parkinson’s Disease is well known to have a symptom described as mask face where (as I understand it) the movement of the facial muscles is very difficult and often the person with this disease in its extreme form is unable to form a strong expression or conversely overcompensates for this ability. Similarly, there is some research that shows those with Alzheimer’s disease have similar symptoms although the research on this appears to be patchy and inconclusive. In my line of work I often encounter elderly people, and I am required to assess their capacity to understand what I am saying. If there is any doubt as to their cognition, I am often led by the advice of their treating general practitioner, however, I am ultimately responsible for assessing whether they understand the nature and effect of what is being discussed.
I recall one older gentleman who I was speaking with, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, I was wholly unable to gauge his reactions to my insights and questions based on his appearance. I had to rely on the actual words he was saying in order to assess his capacity. It was an unusual experience; such is the level of importance of our non-verbal communication in day-to-day life. Talking without the use of facial expression is similar to drinking a tea while holding your nose; you know it is tea, and it is hot and has the tea-like feeling on your tongue, however, the taste is at around 50% of what you are used to.
What do we want from our leaders?
Again, this question is better answered in the negative. What do we not want from our leaders? The answer to this is surprise. I am so certain about this because it is innate in requirements of leaders, and goes back to the forementioned podcast. In the Lion King, Simba is firstly shown in his infancy and then as an adolescent who is attended upon by his female companion from a previous life, Nala, who reminds Simba of his fundamental duties as a lion. In both these stanzas of the film, Simba is shown with the up flexed inner eyebrows as a sign of immaturity where he is surprised by everything in his path (the actual danger in the boneyard, his father’s death, the return of his female companion, even her request for him to become more mature). It is only during the final scenes of the film is Simba shown with the semblance of a look of anger or neutrality signalling him finally maturing.
Why don’t we want our leaders to be surprised? Because we want them to be competent at what they do. If they are surprised the tasks in front of them on anything more than annual basis, it reflects poorly on their ability of foresight. As I have previously written, foresight is the ability to perceive future events occurring and sagely prepare for them. We require this of our leaders. Consider if you were employed by someone who was surprised by what they encountered, you would almost certainly leave the job. I recall in my formative years as a young professional, I was employed by several lawyers, some of whom radiated competence and foresight, others faked these attributes, but none of them radiated surprise in the course of their trade.
So, what do we want from our leaders? Anything but surprise.