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Professor Abigail Marsh Researches Social Cues and Facial Expressions

All of Professor Marsh's research pursuits are in step with her classes at Georgetown, where she teaches three courses: General Psychology; Empathy, Altruism and Aggression and Social and Affective Neuroscience. (Photo: Claire Callagy)




By Akoto Ofori-Atta
“He told me that it was a harebrained idea that was way out on a limb,” said Georgetown psychology professor Abigail Marsh of her undergraduate advisor’s reaction to her thesis idea. “Maybe that should have been a warning to me, but I’m grateful he let me go ahead with the project I proposed anyhow,” she said with a smile.
Luckily she did, as her undergraduate thesis marked the beginning of Marsh’s groundbreaking research on facial expressions and their connection to empathy. Her undergraduate thesis sought to examine the evolutionary question of facial expressions—why people have them and why they take the forms they do.
“Research shows that emotional facial expressions—happiness, sadness and fear—are recognizable all over the world, and that the ability to recognize those behaviors in others is innate,” Marsh explained.
Her research also showed that the fearful facial expressions such as raised eyebrows, rounded face, and enlarged eyes often mimic characteristics associated with infants. Displaying infantile characteristics is an effective way to ward off hostility, Marsh noted, because most mammals will not hurt the young.
Her work eventually earned the respect of her doubtful advisor. “At the end of the semester, I heard him arguing in favor of my theory to another professor in the department,” she wryly recalled. “By that point, I was hooked on psychology research.”
After graduating from Dartmouth College with a B.A. in psychology, Marsh expanded her undergraduate research at Harvard University where she pursued a Ph.D. in social psychology. By then, the 9/11 attacks had drastically changed psychology’s academic environment, as more psychologists sought to contribute to the conversation around altruism.
“At that point, many of us felt the urge to do something to help,” Marsh said.
The events of 9/11 piqued Marsh's interest in the human desire to help others in trouble, which resulted a paper entitled Accurate Identification of Fear Facial Expressions Predicts Prosocial Behavior. Marsh said that there was an abundance of research explaining why those who have difficulty recognizing fear in other people often have antisocial disorders. However, prior to her study, there was no research connecting the ability to recognize fear with “pro-social behavior,” or altruism.
“People who are good at processing the emotion of fear are most likely to respond empathetically to people who show it,” Marsh explained. “As far as I know, it is the best predictor of how altruistic someone will behave toward another, and how much help one will be willing to offer.”
She continued her study of fear and empathy in her post-doctoral work, where she spent five years at the National Institute of Mental Health studying children with callous and unemotional traits. According to Marsh, these adolescents are often at risk of being diagnosed as having anti-social personality disorders as adults. Marsh worked with the first group of psychologists to perform neuroimaging on children exhibiting these behaviors. These scans revealed a deficit in the area of their brains that generates emotion.
“The research is important because these children are at a high risk for behavioral problems in adulthood,” Marsh noted.
Although Marsh pursues many lines of research at the same time, her studies address a set of interconnected questions related to the way that people perceive and respond to others’ emotions and nonverbal behaviors. This year, her research on nonverbal expression moved from the focus on fear to examining body cues and their relation to perceived status. Her most recently published paper titled Larger Than Life: Humans' Nonverbal Status Cues Alter Perceived Size examines dominance and submission cues, and how they can modify the impression of one’s physical size. The paper concludes that people who display nonverbal cues that are associated with social dominance appear larger in physical size than they really are. Conversely, those who do not display social dominance cues appear smaller in size by as much as an inch. Marsh said that perceived size is directly connected to social status.
“People who are bigger are more likely to win status positions,” explained Marsh. “For example, we know that the vast majority of people who win elections have been the taller of the two candidates.”
All of her research pursuits are in step with her classes at Georgetown, where she teaches three courses: General Psychology; Empathy, Altruism and Aggression and Social and Affective Neuroscience. Marsh explained that her career-options advice to her students is that no matter what road you take, psychology is an invaluable asset.
“You can study psychology and not be a psychologist,” Marsh explains. “Knowledge of how the brain works is useful to everyone, in every line of work.”
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Insight: Professor Abigail Marsh
I do love the students. I love their motivation and all of the interesting questions they ask.
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