Watching the Summer Olympics can be confusing; there are people of more nationalities in one place than you’d see in a Coke commercial. Depending on the sport, it can be hard to tell where the athletes are from (there’s not a lot of flag space on a Speedo). One minute you’re cheering for what you think is an American hero, the next she’s waving a Union Jack over her head and belting out “God Save the Queen.” But several decades of research suggests there are subtle ways to pick an American athlete out of a crowd based on just a smile or a wave.
The first experiment to demonstrate a widespread ability to spot nationality was conducted by Georgetown University psychologist Abigail Marsh. While working at Harvard with colleagues in 2003, Marsh showed pictures of emotionally expressive faces made by Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals to a sample of 79 adults raised in the United States and Canada. The pictures depicted angry, disgusted, sad, surprised, and fearful facial expressions. At well above chance, participants were able to guess which photos showed Japanese-Americans. There are, it seems, subtle differences between an American frown and a Japanese frown. (Presumably, Japanese nationals can also spot this difference.)
Marsh and her colleagues ran a similar experiment in 2007, but this time they used pictures of Australians’ and Americans’ facial expressions. Once again, Americans were able to guess the nationality of the person pictured based on a facial expression, in this case a smile. The ability disappeared when people were shown neutral expressions. Other behaviors also contain nonverbal accents that give away one’s nationality. Marsh showed her test subjects black-and-white photos of Americans and Australians either waving hello or walking. The actors in the images wore surgical scrubs and hairnets to eliminate regional clues like cowboy boots and cork hats. People could gauge whether they were looking at an Australian or an American with a still shot of a wave or a stride.
Read the whole story: Slate