How We See Others’ Emotions Depends on Our Pre-conceived Beliefs


Source: New York University

Summary: Researchers have found that how we see emotions on another person’s face depends on our pre-conceived views of how we understand these emotions.


Perceiving other people’s facial emotion expressions often feels as if we are directly reading them out from a face, but these visual perceptions may differ across people depending on the unique conceptual beliefs we bring to the table. A new study makes new insights into how we recognize facial expressions of emotion, which is critical for successful interactions in business, diplomacy, and everyday social exchange. Researchers from the New York University have found that how we see emotions on another person’s face depends on our pre-conceived views of how we understand these emotions. The findings suggest that people vary in the specific facial cues they utilize for perceiving facial emotion expressions. The study findings were published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Strong feeling

In a series of experiments, subjects were assessed in how similarly they held different pairs of six emotions in their mind – Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear, Sadness, and Surprise. Credit: Jonathan Freeman

The study involved a series of experiments in which subjects were asked about their conceptualizations of different emotions. This was used to estimate how closely related different emotions were in a subject’s mind. For instance, some people might think anger and sadness are more similar emotions if they conceptually associate both these emotions with actions such as crying and slamming your fist on a table; other people might think they’re entirely different emotions because they associate the two emotions as feeling completely different and resulting in different actions. Overall, the experiments showed that when individuals believed any two emotions were conceptually more similar, faces they saw from those categories of emotions were visually perceived with a corresponding similarity.

Assoc. Prof. Jonathan Freeman said, “The findings suggest that how we perceive facial expressions may not just reflect what’s in the face itself, but also our own conceptual understanding of what the emotion means.”


More Information: Jeffrey A. Brooks et al, “Conceptual knowledge predicts the representational structure of facial emotion perception”, Nature Human Behaviour (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0376-6 


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