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Editor’s Note: Emotion

Since the 17th century, artists, psychologists, and researchers have subscribed to the theory that some baseline emotions are universal to the human experience—anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. “This means that other people can reliably read your emotional state from your face,” writes Emma Young in her article “When a smile is not a smile–what our facial expressions really mean,” in New Scientist.

However, recent research indicates that facial expressions are used as tools to alter the emotions of other people. Carlos Crivelli and Alan Fridlund of the University of California, Santa Barbara, argue that our facial expressions are meant to manipulate others. “Facial displays are not fixed, semantic read-outs of internal states such as emotions or intentions, but flexible tools for social influence,” they write in their paper Facial Displays are Tools for Social Influence. “Facial displays are not about us, but about changing the behavior of those around us.”

Crivelli and Fridlund contend that expressions are learned and have nothing to do with emotion. The researchers argue that facial expressions influence the target audience. Some of the earliest evidence of this, they write, is a study observing that bowlers did not smile when they made a strike. They smiled when they turned to their fellow bowlers. “A succession of studies points to the same outcome: facial displays are not ‘deployed’ [during] emotion peaks, but when an audience is most available.”

This misreading of facial cues could have serious implications, according to Young. “If we are misinterpreting what facial movements mean, this surely undermines our ability to read other people, especially people from other cultures,” she writes.

A serious implication of this research is that security practitioners cannot rely on external cues from employees to signal when they are in distress, such as when harassment is occurring. Neither victims nor perpetrators accurately display emotions over sexual harassment on their faces.

However, this month’s cover story by Senior Editor Megan Gates discusses how workplace culture can allow, or even lead to, sexual harassment. Factors such as workplace norms, the amount of diversity, and deference to “superstar” employees can provide fertile ground for harassment.

These types of toxic workplace cultures can seriously affect employees. In a study released by workplace consulting firm Emtrain, 83 percent of employees wouldn’t report harassment if they saw it; 41 percent of employees aren’t confident that if they made a harassment complaint, their management would take it seriously; 53 percent see strong norms in their workplaces; and 29 percent have left a workplace because of conflict.

But all is not lost. As Gates notes in her article, “Organizations should have policies and procedures in place to address harassment and conduct training so the policies can be followed. This means putting resources—money and time—toward this effort.”

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