The Vietnam movie Full Metal Jacket is littered with memorable quotes and scenes, especially when Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is adlibbing his put downs of the marines in his platoon. One particularly memorable scene sees Hartman asking to see the war face of Private Snowball so that he can be confident that when faced with the enemy he’s ready for combat.
Whilst Sun Tzu has made military references in the workplace normal, it’s probably rare that many of us have ever really used our own war faces in the office. A new study suggests that there may be some uses for doing just that though.
The research began with the assumption that whilst gauging anger in someone is relatively easy, there isn’t really any evolutionary benefit to such an expression beyond that. The researchers contest this notion, and suggest that a good war face will actually make that person appear stronger.
Recalibration theory of anger
Central to their hypothesis is the recalibration theory of anger. In laymans terms, this is when we see anger as an aggressive threat, which seems reasonable enough. Thus, an expression of anger is telling those witnessing it that damage shall be inflicted upon anyone that does not give them what they want.
The researchers tested this theory by creating pairs of faces using a photo application. The photos would be fairly random, except some would be adjusted to appear more aggressive. So they’d have features such as raised lips, enlarged chin, lowered brow and so on.
These aggressors would be paired up with someone looking altogether more docile. Participants in the experiment would then look at each pair and indicate which of the two they found to be stronger.
Anger = strength
Lo and behold, the research confirmed the hypothesis, revealing that angry looking faces were indeed perceived to be stronger. What’s more, each of the seven different facial features used to define anger would trigger this response, even when used in isolation.
As for why this could be, the researchers were less certain as to the exact reason, although they conducted subsequent experiments to rule out the older appearance of angry looking faces, and thus the hypothesis that strength could be related to age.
"The current study is the first systematic test of the individual components of the anger expression," they conclude. "And in so doing it confirms that these features are improbably well-designed to solve the adaptive problem of bargaining with threats of force."
It is an interesting finding however, not least due to the fact that it mirrors previous studies providing the correlation between aggressive facial features and power between men and women. In that sense, it was rather unfortunate that the researchers failed to expand their study to include an exploration of this notion in women as well as men.
Maybe that will be for another time. Until then however, it may be worth trying out your war face for the next time you want to appear powerful in the office.