‘Resting bitch face’ is real, scientists say

Updated 8:26 AM EST, Thu February 4, 2016
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Story highlights

There's science behind "resting bitch face," according to a new research

A face-reading software can detect people's underlying emotions

(CNN) —  

Good news, everyone! You can now wear your mildly discontented face with some validation.

The phenomenon known as “resting bitch face” is real, according to scientists. Better yet, there’s research available that could explain why some people are “throwing shade.”

In a study conducted in October 2015, scientists Abbe Macbeth and Jason Rogers from Noldus Information Technology, a company that develops software for observational and behavioral research, used the company’s FaceReader software to analyze the faces of celebrities like Kanye West, Kristen Stewart, Anna Kendrick and Queen Elizabeth II, notable public figures who have been known to occasionally wear a less-than-pleased expression.

“We were looking to see if anything popped out,” Macbeth said. “Our software is objective. It’s not prone to human subjectivity like we are.”

What they discovered was that celebrities who had bored or annoyed looks were showing underlying levels of emotions that are not seen in people who don’t have RBF.

Reading your face

Here’s how the software works: Scientists pick a neutral-looking image of a person — one in which they aren’t smiling — and run it through the FaceReader software. The software then registers the face and gives a percentage of underlying emotions it’s picking up.

On an average reading, the software will register a face at 97% neutral. But there’s about 3% of an underlying expression, Macbeth explained. That 3% is made of emotions that show traces of sadness, happiness or anger, for example.

“We see that people who have this RBF expression [have] double the amount of emotionality expressed,” she said. Those afflicted with RBF may show a jump of trace emotions as high as 6% and most of the emotion expressed is of contempt: the feeling that something is worthless or deserving scorn.

Subtle facial expressions like a slightly pulled-back lip or squinting eyes are read as contempt, Macbeth said.

Celebrities with neutral faces are people like Jennifer Aniston and Blake Lively, Macbeth said. Although their faces are neutral, according to the software, people will register Aniston and Lively’s faces as happy faces.

So what does this mean if you think you have RBF? Is there some hidden amount of contempt boiling up inside you? Some unresolved issues that you need to talk about? Macbeth said there’s not a clear-cut answer just yet.

Cultural differences and gender bias may play a role in people’s perception of RBF. “Eastern European people are seen as very stoic and not showing a lot of emotion and … a lot of the people touted as having RBF are women,” Macbeth said.

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She and Rogers, both behavioral neuroscientists, want to do more with the data than just identify who has RBF. They want to know why some people have it and what RBF means in terms of a person’s psychology. Most important, they also want to understand why people react so negatively to a face with RBF.

“We’ve all heard the anecdotal evidence of people being told to smile more … there’s something that is unconsciously showing up on people’s faces when people think they are just being neutral,” Macbeth said.

RBF first gained attention when a meme took over the Internet in 2013. That, plus a viral mock-public service announcement on “Bitchy Resting Face” made the “condition” somewhat of a joke.

Is RBF really a thing?

But RBF is a real phenomenon, according to David B. Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Washington. He calls the condition blank face and said in studies, subjects judge a neutral, expressionless face to be “unfriendly.”

Anthony S. Youn, a board certified plastic surgeon in Detroit, has RBF and said it’s a combination of multiple forces.

“Gravity combined with genetics can pull our mouths down. As we get older and our skin gets looser and it gives us a permanent frown,” he said.

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When it comes to whether software can detect the emotions behind RBF, Youn said he doesn’t know if what Noldus’s software is seeing is true emotions. “I don’t think they can tell if it’s true sadness or bitterness,” he said. “I have it, but it doesn’t mean I am in a bad mood.”

It doesn’t hurt to try smiling, though. There’s research to suggest that smiling can boost a person’s happiness levels. “The expression on our face can affect our mood,” he said.