Updated 03 September 2014

The evolution of our angry face

The face we instinctively make when we are angry can help and protect us in social situations.


The next time you get really mad; take a look in the mirror. See the lowered brow, the thinned lips and the flared nostrils? 

That’s what social scientists call the "anger face", and it appears to be part of our basic biology as humans.

Why we developed the 'angry face'

Now, researchers at the University of California in Santa Barbara (UCSB), and Griffith University in Australia, have identified the functional advantages that caused the specific appearance of the anger face to evolve. 

 “The expression is cross-culturally universal, and even congenitally blind children make this same face without ever having seen one,” said lead author Aaron Sell, a lecturer at the School of Criminology at Griffith University. 

Read: Anger, irritability linked to more severe depression

The anger expression employs seven distinct muscle groups that contract in a highly stereotyped manner.

The researchers sought to understand why evolution chose those particular muscle contractions to signal the emotional state of anger.

The current research is part of a larger set of studies that examine the evolutionary function of anger. “Our earlier research showed that anger evolved to motivate effective bargaining behaviour during conflicts of interest,” said Sell.

The greater the harm an individual can inflict, noted Leda Cosmides, the more bargaining power he or she wields. Cosmides, professor of psychology at UCSB, is a co-author on the study along with John Tooby, UCSB professor of anthropology. Cosmides and Tooby are co-directors of the campus’s Centre for Evolutionary Psychology.

Read: How to deal with angry people 

Bargaining-through-menace principle

“This general bargaining-through-menace principle applies to humans as well. In earlier work we were able to confirm the predictions that stronger men anger more easily, fight more often, feel entitled to more unequal treatment, resolve conflicts more in their own favour and are even more in favour of military solutions than are physically weak men.” said Tooby.

Starting from the hypothesis that anger is a bargaining emotion, the researchers reasoned that the first step is communicating to the other party that the anger-triggering event is not acceptable and the conflict will not end until an implicit agreement is reached.

Read: Personality disorder affects emotion perception

This, they say, is why the emotion of anger has a facial expression associated with it.

“But the anger face not only signals the onset of a conflict,” said Sell. “Any distinctive facial display could do that.

We hypothesised that the anger face evolved its specific form because it delivers something more for the expresser: Each element is designed to help intimidate others by making the angry individual appear more capable of delivering harm if not appeased.”

'Anger face' makes people appear stronger

For our ancestors, Cosmides noted, greater upper body strength led to a greater ability to inflict harm; so the hypothesis was that the anger face should make a person appear stronger.

Using computer-generated faces, the researchers demonstrated that each of the individual components of the anger face made those computer-generated people appear physically stronger; for example, the most common feature of the anger face is the lowered brow.

Researchers took a computerised image of an average human face and then digitally morphed it in two ways: One photo showed a lowered brow, and the other a raised brow.

“With just this one difference, neither face appeared ‘angry’. But when these two faces were shown to subjects, they reported the lowered brow face as looking like it belonged to a physically stronger man.” said Sell.

Read: Anger management for guys

The experiment was repeated one-by-one with each of the other major components of the classic anger face — raised cheekbones (as in a snarl), lips thinned and pushed out, the mouth raised (as in defiance), the nose flared and the chin pushed out and up.

As predicted, the presence by itself of any one of these muscle contractions led observers to judge that the person making the face was physically stronger.

Which one looks stronger? 


Function of anger is intimidation

“Our previous research showed that humans are exceptionally good at assessing fighting ability just by looking at someone’s face.

Since people who are judged to be stronger tend to get their way more often, other things being equal, we concluded that the explanation for evolution of the form of the human anger face is surprisingly simple — it is a threat display.” said Sell.

These threat displays — like those of other animals — consist of exaggerations of cues of fighting ability, Sell continued. “So a man will puff up his chest, stand tall and morph his face to make himself appear stronger.

The function of the anger face is intimidation, just like a frog will puff itself up or a baboon will display its canines.” added Cosmides.

Read: Anger raises your heart attack risk

As Tooby explained, “This makes sense of why evolution selected this particular facial display to co-occur with the onset of anger. Anger is triggered by the refusal to accept the situation, and the face immediately organizes itself to advertise to the other party the costs of not making the situation more acceptable.

What is most pleasing about these results is that no feature of the anger face appears to be arbitrary; they all deliver the same message.”

According to Sell, the researchers know this to be true because each of the seven components has the same effect.

“In the final analysis, you can think of the anger face as a constellation of features, each of which makes you appear physically more formidable.”

Read More:

Dealing with angry people
Ranting on websites just makes you angrier
Frustrated people drawn to violent video games
How our intellect evolved

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These findings appear in the September 2014 online edition of the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour.

Images: Angry and suprised faces, Shutterstock


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Dr Jacomien de Villiers qualified as a specialist physician at the University of Pretoria in 1995. She worked at various clinics at the Department of Internal Medicine, Steve Biko Hospital, these include General Internal Medicine, Hypertension, Diabetes and Cardiology. She has run a private practice since 2001, as well as a consultant post at the Endocrine Clinic of Steve Biko Hospital.

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