Those of you who are afflicted with the daily struggle of having an unintentionally bored or contemptuous-looking resting face, take heart. Scientists have uncovered the cause of Resting B*tch Face (RBF). Although they don’t have a cure for some people’s inadvertently judgmental-seeming facial expressions, their research does reveal some important points: You are not alone, and, contrary to popular belief, RBF is not more common in women than men. That’s right, Resting B*tch Face is an equal opportunity face.
The phenomenon of Resting B*tch Face first started receiving attention in 2013, when a joke-PSA about RBF went viral. Anna Kendrick and Anna Paquin have publicly discussed their own cases of RBF, and Kristen Stewart has frequently (and unfairly) been criticized for not smiling more. Other public figures often cited as having classic cases of RBF include Queen Elizabeth and Kanye West.
Recent work by behavioral researchers Jason Rogers and Abbe Macbeth, from research and innovation firm Noldus Information Technology, reveals that some people’s faces really do look naturally irritated/severe/judgmental/etc, even when they are wearing a neutral expression. Macbeth told The Washington Post that when they set out to do their study, “We wanted this to be fun and kind of tongue-in-cheek, but also to have legitimate scientific data backing it up.”
To conduct their research, Rogers and Macbeth used a FaceReader, a tool created by Noldus to identify facial expressions. According to The Washington Post, the tool creates a detailed, 500-point map of a face and then uses data from its catalogue of more than 10,000 faces to identify the face’s emotional expression. The FaceReader can recognize eight emotions: sadness, anger, surprise, contempt, happiness, fear, disgust, and "neutral."
The researchers studied RBF by comparing images of people recognized as having RBF with images of people with neutral expressions. The FaceReader assigned pictures of expressionless faces with a score of 97 percent neutrality. (The remaining 3 percent were made up of insignificant “blips of emotion,” Macbeth said). However, when the researchers used images of three public figures generally recognized as having RBF — Kanye West, Queen Elizabeth, and Kristen Stewart — they got different results. The software recognized double the level of emotion in their “neutral” expressions, with a particularly heightened reading for “contempt.” Macbeth explained, “Something in the neutral expression of the face is relaying contempt, both to the software and to us.” She suggested that the software was reading minute features of the face, saying, “It’s kind of a tightening around the eyes, and a little bit of raising of the corners of the lips — but not into a smile.” Rogers said that markers could include things like “one side of the lip pulled back slightly, the eyes squinting a little.”
Resting B*tch Face is often seen as a primarily female complaint (and most of the famous people cited as having it are women), but Macbeth and Rogers’s work with the FaceReader showed that equal numbers of men and women have RBF. Macbeth suggests that the fact that RBF is associated so strongly with women may have less to do with their actual faces than with widespread cultural expectations that women should be happy and cheerful (Just think, for example, of how often catcallers tell women on the street to “smile”). She told The Washington Post,
That’s something that’s expected from women far more than it’s expected from men, and there’s a lot of anecdotal articles and scientific literature on that. So RBF isn’t necessarily something that occurs more in women, but we’re more attuned to notice it in women because women have more pressure on them to be happy and smiley and to get along with others.