The Anatomy of a Poker Face
Susie is smitten with Roger, whom she has been dating for several months. They have a date tonight, and Susie thinks Roger has a special surprise for her because he's taking her to an upscale restaurant. Could it be a proposal?
After their wine arrives and they receive their menus, Roger takes Susie's hand. He looks directly into her eyes and says, "You are a wonderful woman, Susie, but we're just not right for each other. I'd like to see other people."
Susie's heart sinks, but she is determined not to let him see her disappointment. She tells herself, "Better to find out now than later. I don't need this jerk anyway." Taking a deep breath, she suppresses her tears and returns Roger's gaze. "Sounds good to me," Susie says coolly. "What are you going to order for dinner?"
We've all been here, haven't we? Feeling great - hopeful, even - and then we're dropped a bombshell that shatters our expectations. Yet we are a proud species, and the last thing we want to do is show the person that stepped on our dreams that we've been affected by these nefarious actions. And so we invoke the "poker face."
Did you know that the poker face is a uniquely human phenomenon? When you think about it, we really don't see a Labrador Retriever hiding his disappointment when he finds out he's not getting any table scraps. (On the other hand, maybe cats almost have the poker face figured out.)
What allows us to pull this off? Funny you should ask. A group of researchers from Belgium and Germany recently studied the anatomy of the poker face. They found that both cognitive (thinking) strategies and physical abilities are used to remain calm and relatively "unreadable" in the midst of negative feelings.
Cognitively, we reappraise the negative situation to put a new spin on it. In the example above, Susie took her initial heartbreak and told herself that she was better off knowing this about Roger now instead of later. That cognitive reappraisal helped her pull off the poker face instead of bursting into tears.
Physically, we are able to suppress our emotions by controlling our facial expressions, body language, and other physical signs such as tears, flushed skin, or trembling.
Of course, instituting the poker face doesn't mean that we've actually changed the way we feel about the incident (Susie most likely went home that night and cried herself to sleep). But it allows us to maintain composure in difficult situations, whether they occur at the workplace or in our personal life.
There are a couple of take-aways regarding the anatomy of the poker face. The first is that as humans, we should appreciate that we have unique tools built into our brains that allow us to modulate negative emotions. The second is that these tools should be used wisely. While the poker face has its uses, there are times when it might be best to be emotionally open and authentic, right in the moment. I'm confident that we can all surmise when those moments might occur.
Vanderhasselt, M.-A., Kühn, S., & De Raedt, R. (2012). "Put on your poker face": Neural systems supporting the anticipation for expressive suppression and cognitive reappraisal. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, Advance Access, doi: 10.1093/scan/nss090