In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is resting bitch face.
Okay, so the term resting bitch face certainly doesn’t sound scientific, and it isn’t. However, it does seem to be related to an actual physical phenomenon. So, do some people actually have a not-so-pleasant-looking neutral facial expression, and if so, why?
As far back as Charles Darwin, certain facial expressions of emotions were believed to be universal across geography and cultural groups. A fair bit of research evidence has accumulated to back this up, particularly with respect to the emotions anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise.
Macroexpressions, which last 1/2 a second or more and involve the entire face, are the easiest to pick up. There are also microexpressions, which only last fractions of a second. These appear to be involuntary, and they’re produced by a different part of the brain than macroexpressions.
When we encounter other people, we automatically try to assess their emotional state based on their facial expression. Even when the expression is neutral, we still try to look for something, even if that something is too minor to represent actual emotion states. We then make generalizations based on what we think we see.
Facial expression analysis and RBF
Testing done with Noldus’s FaceReader facial expression analysis tool showed that most people’s neutral expressions were 97% neutral, while the remaining 3% included bits of emotional expressions. The neutral facial expressions of Kanye West, Kristen Stewart, and Queen Elizabeth were 93% neutral, with another 6% demonstrative of subtle indicators suggesting emotions, primarily contempt. These subtle emotional cues included a tightening of the eyes and certain changes around the lips. Not a big shift, but enough for our minds to decide it’s there.
Wikipedia provides this picture of French King Louis XIV as an example of resting bitch face. To me, the tightening of the lips stands out as RBF-ish.
Curious as to whether you have resting bitch face? You can visit the site TestRBF.com, upload a photo, and find out FaceReader’s analysis. There’s no easy-to-find privacy info on the site, and you don’t have to enter personal details, but presumably, after you upload your neutral expression photo, they will add that photo to their database. The bigger their database is, the more the technology can artificially learn, and the more effective FaceReader can be.
There are plastic surgery websites that claim that they can correct resting bitch face. Given that RBF is associated with actual physical cues, I’m sure surgery can have an effect. Whether anyone should care enough to pay to go under the knife is a whole other question. On a somewhat related note, years ago, there was a local male reporter whose resting expression included a very scrunched-up forehead. It was prominent enough that it was a bit distracting. Eventually, he must have gotten Botox, because no more scrunching, and it made him look calmer and more self-assured.
The role of sex/gender
Facial recognition software shows that resting bitch face is distributed evenly across the sexes, but socially, it seems to be viewed as a female thing. Samantha Grossman writes in The Week that “If you’re a woman and you have a face, chances are good that at some point, you’ve been accused of having ‘resting bitch face.'” Perhaps part of the issue is that women are socially expected to smile, so not smiling gets conflated with resting bitch face.
A paper in the journal Emotion argued that emotional first impressions are used to assess different things depending on whether the person being observed is a male or a female. If it’s a female, perceived cues indicating negative emotions are used to judge attractiveness. If it’s a male, those visual cues are used to judge the level of threat.
While it would be easy to write off RBF as something that’s purely sexist, it seems like there really is an interplay between the way our brain evaluates small differences in facial expression and the cultural importance that’s placed on certain forms of emotional expression. Less black and white, more shades of grey.
Do we judge?
In my first-year math class, a particular female classmate caught my attention because she had resting bitch face. I never had occasion to interact with her, so I knew nothing about what she was like as a person. The next year, we ended up becoming close friends, but I still thought she had resting bitch face.
Perhaps the lesson is to take our first impressions with a grain of salt. We’re hard-wired the same way our caveman ancestors were when we had to make snap judgments about who to let into our cave, but usefulness in some contexts doesn’t make it accurate.
- Matsumoto, D., & Hwang, H.S. (2011). Science Brief: Reading facial expressions of emotions. American Psychological Association.
- Hester, N. (2019). Perceived negative emotion in neutral faces: Gender-dependent effects on attractiveness and threat. Emotion, 19(8), 1490.
- Grossman, S. (2019). The insidious sexism of ‘resting bitch face’. The Week.
- Gibson, C. (2018). Scientists have discovered what causes Resting Bitch Face. Washington Post.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.