“Despite its roots in humour, RBF seems to have become another reason to be mean about others’ looks – and insecure about our own.”
We’re only saying this once: Resting Bitch Face. Given the intrinsic misogyny of the term, and the fact that it’s most often used to describe women, we’ll call it RBF from now on. Not perfect, but less offensive.
In case you’re not familiar with the idea, RBF is that subtle look of derision, disapproval or superiority that we all recognise when we see it. Both the name, and the concept, have caught on like an Adele single.
Celebrities like Anna Kendrick, Anna Paquin and other stars joked about having one, and a big slice of the Instagram universe scrolled through their posts and wondered aloud if they, too, might have it (and whether it could be “cured” with surgery, injections or lasers).
Then it became a sport to spot it in others. But despite its roots in humour, RBF seems to have become just another reason to be mean about how other people look – and insecure about ourselves.
Enter Dr Jason Rogers, a behavioural neuroscientist and senior consultant for Noldus Consulting, one of the companies behind a software called Facereader. Jason was at a school cross-country event talking to another parent who was lamenting the trials and tribulations of raising a teenager. “To add insult to injury,” Dr Rogers recalls the mother saying, “she’s throwing shade at me all day with her RBF.”
The next day, while on a run himself, Dr Rogers had a eureka moment: “What if I could use Facereader to identify RBF?”
Facereader maps the 500 points on the face that generate what Dr Rogers calls “action units”. It’s all based on pioneering research begun in the 1950s by Dr Paul Ekman, who theorised that facial expressions were universal and unconscious – and that they could be measured. He developed a system to codify six “universal expressions” (sadness, happiness, fear, disgust, surprise and anger) as they manifest on the human face. And, using a slightly different algorithm, Facereader does the same thing.
The software is typically used in advertising or consumer testing, where it picks out fleeting, almost imperceptible reactions in subjects. (A recent study used a similar technology to identify a universal “not face”, an expression of negative emotion that is consistent across cultures and languages.
Dr Lora Becker, an associate professor of psychology, uses Facereader in her own research.
“You can pick up people’s reactions that they don’t even have the words to explain,” Dr Becker says, “because it goes into microexpressions that we don’t have control over. It reads subtleties that we can’t always perceive visually.”
Now armed with this powerful tool, Dr Rogers scoured the internet for images of the people who were described as having RBF, including Kristen Stewart, Victoria Beckham, January Jones, Anna Kendrick, Queen Elizabeth and Kanye West. Then he ran them through the Facereader programme.
Although this wasn’t exactly a rigorous scientific study (the sample was small and obviously subjective), a pattern emerged. The faces associated with RBF registered “subtle traces of contempt”, says Dr Rogers. “There’s an air of superiority or judgement conveyed. It’s nothing overt, but the software, as well as the viewer, picks up on it.” Some behaviourists theorise that RBF may be a sign of introversion or social anxiety, but in general, people with RBF may not be in the least bit introverted, anxious or contemptuous. They may be feeling perfectly happy. Or they may be feeling nothing at all.
To be clear: an obvious snarl of derision or smirk of sarcasm isn’t RBF. RBF is when you think that someone’s sneering at you, but they’re not. Which may explain why those who believe that they have it, or have been accused of having it, often feel misunderstood.
“Emotion generates from the limbic system, which is an older part of the brain,” explains Dr Becker. “Even though we might not have words for certain feelings, they still affect our interaction.”
In this wordless matrix of communication, messages are sent and received at lightning speed. Our cerebral cortex is convinced it has registered bitchiness, and our limbic system is off and running with the idea nanoseconds before we discover that we actually like the person with the downward-turned mouth.
Dr Rogers’ little experiment clearly hit a chord. After he and his colleague Dr Abbe Macbeth blogged about the results, the company’s website received more traffic in 48 hours than it had in the entire previous 12 months combined.