There are umpteen ways that communication can distort people’s perception and hence the way they respond to someone, especially when emotions are involved.
This can also apply to labels we give to the emotions behind someone’s facial expression, like saying they are furious instead of grumpy.
“Traditionally, emotional facial expressions, such as happiness or anger, are thought to be the primary thing you use to understand someone’s emotion,” says Megan Barker from Australia’s University of Queensland.
But her team’s study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, adds to evidence that our evaluation of facial expressions is influenced by other contextual factors such as language.
For two independent experiments using still or dynamic faces, the researchers recruited more than 270 volunteers in collaboration with the Columbia University Medical Centre, New York.
For each, they paired 32 photos of four people with eight different expressions – happy, sad, angry, scared, disgusted, surprised, embarrassed and proud – with emotion words of varying intensity.
For instance, a sad face was shown alongside the word “down” and then later with the word “distraught”.
Participants rated how each face looked on three dimensions – arousal, valence and dominance – that assessed on sliding scales how energised, positive or powerful someone looked.
They found that people’s judgement of six expressions – angry, scared, sad, proud, disgusted and surprised – was influenced by the word it was presented with. This held for both photos and videos, except for the proud category.
When participants saw an angry face alongside the word “furious”, they rated it as more energised and more powerful than when it was paired with the word “grumpy”.
If a scared face was paired with the word “terrified”, it was rated as more energised than when shown with the word “worried”.
This suggests it would be prudent to think twice before assuming what someone is feeling, and more importantly, before acting on that assumption, factoring in the influence of non-facial cues such as language.
“Emotions are not simply read from expressions,” the authors conclude. “Rather, language may have the last word.”
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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