Boston University

Men And Women Are Equally Good at Reading Facial Expressions

Despite conventional wisdom, women are no better at reading faces than men.

4 SEP 2017

Despite conventional wisdom, a new study from Penn State has found no difference between men and women in their ability to recognise and read facial expressions.

For a long time, it was thought that reading facial expressions was more intuitive for women than it was for men.


Now, this age-old myth has been put to the test, using neuroimaging and behavioural tasks.

"There has been a common lore in the behavioral literature that women do better than men in many types of face-processing tasks, such as face recognition and detecting and categorizing facial expressions, although, when you look in the empirical literature, the findings are not so clear cut," says Suzy Scherf, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Penn State. 

"I went into this work fully expecting to see an effect of biological sex on the part of the observer in facial recognition — and we did not find any. And we looked really hard."

Facial recognition is important because it plays a crucial role in our ability to navigate social interactions.

"Within 30 milliseconds of looking at a face, you can figure out the age, the sex, whether you know the person or not, whether the person is trustworthy, whether they're competent, attractive, warm, caring — we can make categorizations on faces that fast," says Scherf.

This ability also informs our behaviour towards other people, and how we trust and treat them.


"For example, Do I want to vote for this person? Do I want to have a conversation with this person? Where do I fit in the status hierarchy?" explains Scherf.

In fact, most of the things that we do in life are dictated by the information that we get from faces.

When human behaviour is so heavily impacted by social interactions, it makes sense that men and women have similar abilities to read facial expressions.

"Faces are just as important for men, you can argue, as they are for women," said Scherf.

"Men get all the same cues from faces that women do."

But that's not the only myth this study debunked.

The study also revealed no gender bias in our ability to read faces; an idea that has long impacted psychological studies.

The study debunked this myth by employing a common facial recognition test called the Cambridge Face Memory Test, which tasks participants with choosing a male face out of a three-person lineup.

In the past, this test has only used male faces, as psychologists wished to avoid the "gender bias" women were thought to have.


The Penn State study, however, created their own female version to put this theory to the test.

Scherf and her team found women don't appear to be able to read female faces more accurately than male faces; once again, flying in the face of conventional wisdom.

The study then used MRI to scan the brains of participants while they watched a video of unfamiliar faces, specific faces, famous faces, common objects and navigation scenes (like a clip of Earth from outer space).

Scherf and her team found that the neural activity in facial recogition areas of the brain — as well as other types of visual recognition — were statistically identical for both biological sexes.

Participants for the study were carefully screened for conditions and disorders that affect facial recognition.

"This is important because in nearly all the affective disorders — depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar — face processing is disrupted," explains Scherf.

The next step for Scherf and her team is to examine whether there are any differences in facial recognition amongst male and female adolescents.

The study was supported by the Social Science Research Institute and the National Science Foundation.