Appearing confident or in charge of a situation may be as easy as a small tilt of the head, a new study suggests. Canadian researchers discovered that tucking the chin and lowering the head by just 10 degrees makes a person appear far more dominant even when their expression stays neutral.
And the effect appears to work because it creates the illusion that the eyebrows have formed a ‘v-shape’ which usually occurs when a person is being aggressive.
“We show that tilting one's head downward systematically changes the way the face is perceived, such that a neutral face, a face with no muscle movement or facial expression, appears to be more dominant when the head is tilted down,” said Zachary Witkower, a doctoral student specialising in non-verbal behaviours at the University of British Columbia.
“This effect is caused by the fact that tilting one's head downward leads to the artificial appearance of lowered and V-shaped eyebrows, which in turn elicit perceptions of aggression, intimidation, and dominance.”
Humans have evolved to read faces for signs of friendship or hostility and have become experts at subconsciously gauging how a person is thinking or feeling by a narrowing or widening of eyes, an upturned mouth or a frown.
But it was unclear if the position of the head itself had an impact.
For the experiment nearly 700 people were asked to rate neutral faces of men, women and avatars who were either looking straight at the camera, or whose head had been tilted 10 degrees up or down.
The participants judged the dominance of each image, rating their agreement with statements such as ‘This person would enjoy having control over others’ and ‘This person would be willing to use aggressive tactics to get their way.’
The results showed that participants rated the downward head tilt as around 20 per cent more dominant than those with neutral or upward-titled heads.
“These findings suggest that 'neutral' faces can still be quite communicative,” said report author Jessica Tracy.
“Subtle shifts of the head can have profound effects on social perception, partly because they can have large effects on the appearance of the face.”
Further experiments showed that the portion of the face around the eyes and eyebrows is both necessary and sufficient to produce the dominance effect.
Volunteers rated downward-tilted heads as more dominant even when they could only see the eyes and eyebrows but not when they were obscured.
The researchers say the findings could have practical implications for our everyday social interactions:
“People often display certain movements or expressions during their everyday interactions, such as a friendly smile or wave, as a way to communicate information,” added Mr Witkower.
“Our research suggests that we may also want to consider how we hold their head during these interactions, as subtle head movements can dramatically change the meaning of otherwise innocuous facial expressions.”
The research was published in the journal Psychological Science.