“De­spite its roots in hu­mour, RBF seems to have be­come an­other rea­son to be mean about oth­ers’ looks – and in­se­cure about our own.”

Glamour (South Africa) - - Glamour Sex -

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.

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