Facial expressions open to interpretation

What emotion do you see?
What emotion do you see?

The way we perceive and remember another person’s facial expressions is greatly influenced by how we initially interpret their mood, according to new research co-authored by a University of Otago scientist.

The findings suggest that facial expression has a potential bearing on everything from everyday misunderstandings through to more serious cases of social anxiety and eyewitness memory.

The study adds further evidence to the fact that, rather than our facial expressions being the clear cues to others we imagine them to be, they are instead open to interpretation.  The research was published in Psychological Science by an international team of scientists including Associate Professor Jamie Halberstadt of the University of Otago.

In the study, the paper’s authors showed people pictures of emotionally ambiguous, and asked them to think of these faces either as happy or angry.  They then watched movies of the faces slowly changing expression from angry to happy, and had to identify the point at which the faces’ expressions matched what they had originally seen.  That initial interpretation, it showed, coloured participants’ choice – if they had originally thought of a face as happy, they tended to remember that face seeming happier than had actually been the case.

Researchers also measured the minute facial twitches made by participants when looking at the ambiguous faces, and saw that the emotions shown by participants matched the emotions they had originally associated with the faces.

The research demonstrates that, far from body and mind being separate entities, the body does in fact have a substantial effect on our emotions and mind, and vice versa.

Professor Michael Corballis, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Auckland, comments:

“[The paper] is a clever experiment and makes a nice point. It shows that one’s preconceptions about a person can influence one’s emotional reaction to that person’s face. The very same face can be reacted to as though it were angry or happy, depending on an earlier association. This means that emotional reaction to a facial expression does not depend solely on the face itself, but is influenced by how the person is conceptualised.

“It’s interesting, too, that the emotional reaction was measured physically, and not simply in terms of what the participants said.”

Dr Lucy Johnston, Professor of Psychology at the University of Canterbury, comments:

“This research demonstrates that in trying to understand social interactions it is important to consider both people in the interaction. As this research shows it is not enough to simply look at the ‘sender” and describe the facial expression that they are displaying. Rather it is also important to study the ‘receiver” and factors that influence how they interpret and remember the expression. Much of the information in social encounters is ambiguous or occurs very briefly, so interpretation and memory processes play a vital role in directing social interactions. As this research shows, the needs, motives and mood of an individual may influence how they interpret and remembers the expression, and hence the emotional state, of their interaction partner which is turn directs how the social interaction unfolds.”

Registered journalists can access the full paper in our Resource Library.