Newsflash: The trouble with "neutral face"

"Portrait of a Girl" by George Pencz.

“Portrait of a Girl” by George Pencz.

In the hundreds of painted portraits in Mia’s collection, almost no one is smiling. And we don’t know why. We really don’t. People didn’t smile in old photographs either. It may be because of bad teeth or because big smiles were uncouth—a sign of craziness or drunkenness, the so-called “grinning idiot” (this is apparently still true outside the United States). But whatever the case, we do know that many Americans have trouble reading neutral faces. They see anger and scowling—the infamous “resting bitch face”—where there is none.
It’s not just a curious social phenomenon. Women, especially, are admonished to smile more, so they don’t seem so unhappy. It may have cost Hillary Clinton the presidency.
But what’s our problem? A new study offers some potential explanations. People who grew up with parents constantly battling each other have an especially hard time reading neutral faces. And people who struggle with anxiety tend to see neutral expressions as angry, fearful, or just generally negative. It may be a glass-half-empty situation—if you’re used to assuming the worst, you’ll see it everywhere it exists, and even where it doesn’t.
Top image: Portrait of a Girl by George Pencz, from 1547. On view at Mia in gallery G342.