About a month ago, I was clicking through photos of a local disc golf tournament when I came across a remarkable image. For a second, I didn’t recognize the person in the photo.
“Who’s this psycho Santa Claus?” I said to myself. “Waaaait ’a minute.”
Yep, that was me. (I’m the one in yellow).
Photography has come a long way in recent years, and now photographers can grab dozens of frames per second, and reveal, in amazing detail, the expression on a disc golfer’s face just as she or he lets go of the disc.
Aside from considering therapy, the photo above got me thinking about what facial expressions mean.
Where do these troubling, disgusting, beautiful, acrobatic movements of the face come from? Was I born with psycho Santa in my genes? Did I gradually learn to be psycho Santa after years of being socialized in American society? Or perhaps everyone has the potential to be a psycho Santa under certain conditions?
Social scientific answers to these questions tend to differ across academic disciplines.
Based on a mountain of research, many psychologists argue that facial expressions are universal. People from all over the world tend to use the same facial expression when experiencing a given emotion. They also tend to judge other people’s facial expressions in roughly the same way.
Consider, for example, the photos above (by Boyce McCoy). It takes no time at all to recognize the emotion in those faces. It just comes to us, all of us, without exception: These guys are happy.
And they should be. They just won prizes at a disc golf tournament.
David Matsumoto and other psychologists believe that there are seven universal facial expressions, including anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise (1). As illustrated in the photos below (APA), each emotion is associated with a distinct set of movements in the cheeks, mouth, nose, eyes and forehead.
Most psychologists argue further that our ability to use these expressions consistently, as well as to read the faces of other people, is a product of biological evolution.
From this perspective, facial expressions are like reflexes. Often hard to control, they sometimes bubble up, for a split second, even when we’re trying not to show them (2). Thanks to evolution, the muscles in the face flex and contort in accordance with our current emotional state, like a universal beacon that signals how we feel from moment to moment (3).
In short, psycho Santa is in my genes (that seems like bad news).
Although the psychological approach to facial expressions has received a great deal of empirical support, there is at least one competing perspective.
Sociologists tend to question the idea that human behavior is innate or predetermined by our biology alone. We know, for instance, that adults are better at controlling their facial expressions and reading faces than children. Children who suffer from physical neglect by their caregivers tend to have difficulty matching facial expressions to situations (4). Boys and girls are also socialized to display their emotions in different ways (5).
In addition, some researchers have contradicted the universal-signal thesis by showing that facial expressions of certain emotions are displayed in different ways from one region of the world to the next (6).
In other words, our ability to use and identify facial expressions depends on where and how we grew up. Making faces is a learned behavior that varies across individuals, because individuals have diverse personal experiences and cultural backgrounds (7). Thinking about who we are and what triggers our emotions in everyday life might help us control our emotions (and avoid psycho Santa face).
As a social psychologist, I usually take the middle road in debates between psychologists and sociologists. A facial expression is probably best understood as both a semi-automatic signal of an individual’s current emotional state, as well as a marker of our unique social and cultural environments.
Our social environments influence the way we make and perceive facial expressions at both the macro level (through institutionalized lessons from schools, churches, mass media and so forth), and the micro level (through social interaction and the experiences of everyday life).
To explore these ideas, I began looking through photos of professional disc golfers. As a qualitative study, my goal here was not to definitively measure a specific set of images, but rather to explore the different dimensions of facial expressions in a large, though unscientific, sample of photos.
All of the photos I examined came from publically available online sources, including the Professional Disc Golf Association’s Flickr account, the Definitive Guide to Disc Golf, two local online newspapers, a few public Facebook pages of professional disc golfers, and a couple photos taken by my friend Jesse Wright.
As a rule, I only examined images that captured a disc golfer’s facial expression just as he or she released the disc.
By definition, a pro disc golfer has both the physical ability and the mental game to excel at disc golf. They also have extensive experience with high-level tournament settings, where crowds of people watch and take photos and the news media covers the event. In order to avoid being distracted by strong, negative emotions, and minimize unbecoming displays, most professional disc golfers, I hypothesize, have learned to maintain a neutral emotional state, even under troubling circumstances.
If emotions, as psychologists suggest, can be easily identified in facial expressions, the typical face of a pro disc golfer should look focused, confident and calm, as opposed to fearful, angry or surprised.
Some of the results of this study matched my expectations. The faces of many professional disc golfers, even when throwing long drives down narrow fairways, looked remarkably unstressed.
As illustrated by the photos below, the prototypical face of a pro disc golfer might display a neutral positioning of the cheeks and lips, an unfurled brow and forehead, peaceful, if focused, eyes, and the generally relaxed features of a face at rest.
This sort of facial tranquility, however, was actually rare, and did not emerge as a clear pattern in the photos I studied.
Fiercer looks were far more common. Pro disc golfers often pursed their lips and sometimes squinted as if wincing from a sudden, intense pain. Although this expression was more likely to emerge when players performed physically demanding shots, I discovered wincing in some photos of shorter shots and even putts. Paul McBeth, the highest rated male disc golfer in the world, exhibited the pursed-lipped-squint expression in multiple photos, though he also displayed extraordinary poise in many others.
A number of pros stuck their tongues out in mid-throw, extending it upward, toward the corner of the mouth, or straight out. Tongue protrusion was noticeably recurrent in photos of top pros Jeremy Koling and Simon Lizotte.
Sticking out one’s tongue may seem like a simple gesture, but it has many different meanings across cultures. From a gesture of respect in Tibet to a sign of aggression among the Maori people of New Zealand, tongue display is a complicated behavior that is highly dependent on social context (8). Within the rather uniform context of professional disc golf, the meaning and function of tongue display seemed difficult to understand.
As illustrated below, smiles were also found in several photos. Though straightforward in most cases, even the traditional smile seemed, at times, ambiguous. An authentic sense of joy, a flagging contentment, a response to glaring sunlight, a performance for the camera, some of these smiles seemed at once recognizable and mysterious.
A surprising number of professional disc golfers closed their eyes as they threw the disc. Although it was not her standard facial expression, Catrina Allen, the highest rated female disc golfer in the world, had her eyes shut, or nearly closed, almost Zen-like, in at least four of the photos I found.
There was only one general conclusion that emerged from this brief study: the facial expressions of many pro disc golfers defied categorization and seemed difficult to “read.” In fact, the goal of classifying these expressions in a few simple categories became less and less tenable as I worked through more and more photos.
Some players puffed out their cheeks and held their breath, while others exhaled slowly, as if blowing through a plastic straw. There were gaping mouths and snarling teeth and eyelid movements of every shape and size. There were smiles that seemed to indicate sadness or defeat, and frowns that contained an air of optimism. There was a wide array of mouth and jaw positions, some that looked more like the faces people make when trying new (not delicious) foods than when playing a professional sport. And, to my great relief, there were even a few psycho Santas.
The study described above has a number of limitations. For one thing, I examined photos of disc golfers throwing all kinds of shots under various conditions. The weirdness of my findings may also be explained by the motivation of the various photographers to capture and circulate interesting, evocative shots.
To address these problems, I examined a set of images from a local disc golf tournament in Morgantown, West Virginia, where photographer Boyce McCoy took shots of all (or almost all) the competitors involved in an “ace-pot throw off.”
During a tournament, competitors often pay a small amount of money to an ace pot. If someone hits a target in one shot (an ace) during play, he or she receives all the money in the pot. If no one gets an ace, the tournament director often organizes a closest-to-the-pin throw off, where everyone has a chance to win the money with a single throw at a relatively close target. Whoever is closest to the pin takes the pot.
An ace-pot throw off provides a kind of natural experiment that allows for the observation of disc golfers’ facial expressions under relatively uniform circumstances. Each of the photos in this sample depicted disc golfers throwing at a target from the same distance (about 100 feet), with roughly the same number of people watching (15-20), and with the same amount of money on the line ($250).
Looking at these photos, it seemed clear to me that amateur disc golfers, even when throwing under the same conditions, exhibit diverse facial expressions, many of which were similar to those of the pros. In this very small group of photos, I found examples of the “pro face,” the “pursed-lipped squinter,” the “tongue displayer,” the “smiler,” and a number of other faces that, like the pros, defied simple categorization.
There are almost no easy shots in disc golf. Moving through a course, especially during a competitive tournament, is like traversing an emotional minefield, where missed shots can lead to anger toward oneself, toward others and even toward inanimate objects, and where successful shots can raise the spirits instantly. The resulting emotional roller coaster can be unsettling and exhausting.
Added to this baseline emotional strain are dozens of situational factors, including shot difficulty, weather conditions, the mere presence of other participants and spectators, differences in the score between players, the collective mood of the group, and the diverse cultural tool kits that each disc golfer uses to define the given situation and make sense of the game.
Some of the facial expressions of disc golfers may be culturally universal, and perhaps innate. When the social context is straightforward, the emotion behind our expressions often seems natural and easy to recognize.
But considerable variability exists between individual disc golfers, suggesting that our emotional displays on the disc golf course also depend on socially acquired attributes, such as our life experiences, beliefs about emotions, the ability to regulate emotions, and our reactions to the complicated social situations that we all must face as we throw the disc.
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Boyce McCoy (Josh as “psycho Santa” and WV disc golfers); Jesse Wright (photos of Brad Schick and Zach Melton). Other sources: PDGA’s Flickr; Definitive Guide to Disc Golf; Monthly Portland; Santa Cruz Sentinel; public Facebook pages of Paul McBeth and Catrina Allen; Popcornhorror.com (“Santa’s Slay”); American Psychological Association (seven faces).
Note on fair use
The purpose of using the photos in this blog post is educational. The goal of this blog is to share research on disc golf, as suggested by the tagline “The Sociology of Disc Golf.” This blog generates no financial or material gain of any kind. If you would like me to take down any of the photos above, let me know and I’ll do so.
(1) Matsumoto, D., Keltner, D., Shiota, M. N., Frank, M. G., & O’Sullivan, M. (2008). What’s in a face? Facial expressions as signals of discrete emotions. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland & L. Feldman Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (pp. 211-234). New York: Guilford Press.
(2) Matsumoto, D., & Willingham, B. (2009). Spontaneous facial expressions of emotion of congenitally and non-congenitally blind individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(1), 1-10.
(3) Darwin, C. (1872). The expression of emotion in man and animals. New York: Oxford University Press.
(4) S. D. Pollak, D. Cicchetti, K. Hornung, and A. Reed. 2000. Recognizing emotion in faces: developmental effects of child abuse and neglect. Developmental Psychology, 36, 5, 679-88.
(5) Agneta H. Fischer. 2000. Gender and emotion: Social psychological perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(6) Gilbert, Daniel Todd, Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey. 1998. The handbook of social psychology. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
(7) Peggy A. Thoits. 1989. The Sociology of Emotions. Annual Review of Sociology 15(1): 317-342.
(8) Leon F. Seltzer. 2015. What Does It Mean When We Stick Our Tongues Out? Depending on context—and placement—tongue protrusion can imply almost anything. Psychology Today, September 22.