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Believing is seeing: thoughts colour how we perceive emotions

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Thursday 3 September 2009 3:39pm

Ambiguous expression. Common wisdom has it that 'seeing is believing', but latest research suggests that believing is seeing, too - at least when it comes to perceiving other people's emotions.

The newly published study, carried out by an international team of psychologists that included a University of Otago researcher, has implications for areas ranging from everyday misunderstandings to social anxiety and eyewitness memory.

The research team found that the way we initially think about the emotions of others biases our subsequent perception (and memory) of their facial expressions.

"So once we interpret an ambiguous or neutral look as angry or happy, we later remember and actually see it as such," says study co-author Associate Professor Jamin Halberstadt of the University of Otago's Department of Psychology.

The study, published in the September issue of the journal Psychological Science, "addresses the age-old question: 'Do we see reality as it is, or is what we see influenced by our preconceptions?'" says co-author Piotr Winkielman, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego. "Our findings indicate that what we think has a noticeable effect on our perception."

"We imagine our emotional expressions as unambiguous ways of communicating how we are feeling," says Associate Professor Halberstadt, "but in real social interactions, facial expressions are blends of multiple emotions - they are open to interpretation."

"This means that two people can have different recollections about the same emotional episode, yet both be correct about what they 'saw'. So when my wife remembers my smirk as cynicism, she is right: her interpretation of my expression at the time biased her perception of it. But it is also true that, had she explained my expression as empathy, I wouldn't be sleeping on the couch."

"Emotion perception is a paradox", Associate Professor Halberstadt adds. "It turns out the more we seek meaning in others' emotions, the less accurate we are in remembering them."

The researchers point out that implications of the results go beyond everyday interpersonal misunderstandings, especially for those who have persistent or dysfunctional ways of understanding emotions, such as socially anxious or traumatised individuals.

For example, Associate Professor Halberstadt says, the socially anxious have negative interpretations of people's reactions that may permanently colour their perceptions of others' feelings and intentions, perpetuating their mistaken beliefs even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Other applications of the findings include eyewitness memory: A witness to a violent crime, for example, may attribute malice to a perpetrator - an impression which, according to the researchers, will influence memory for the perpetrator's face and emotional expression.

In the study, the researchers showed experimental participants still photographs of faces morphed by computer to express ambiguous emotion and instructed them to think of these faces as either angry or happy. Participants then watched movies of the faces slowly changing expression, from angry to happy, and were asked to find the photograph they had originally seen. People's initial interpretations influenced their memories: Faces initially interpreted as angry were remembered as expressing more anger than faces initially interpreted as happy.

Even more interestingly, the ambiguous faces were also perceived and reacted to differently, says Associate Professor Halberstadt.

By measuring subtle electrical signals coming from the muscles that control facial expressions, the researchers discovered that the participants imitated on their own faces the previously interpreted emotion when viewing the ambiguous faces again.

"In other words, when viewing a facial expression they had once thought about as angry, people expressed more anger themselves than did people viewing the same face if they had initially interpreted it as happy," he says.

Because it is largely automatic, the researchers write, such facial mimicry reflects how the ambiguous face is perceived, revealing that participants were literally seeing different expressions.

"The novel finding here", says Professor Winkielman, "is that our body is the interface: The place where thoughts and perceptions meet. It supports a growing area of research on 'embodied cognition' and 'embodied emotion': Our corporeal self is intimately intertwined with how -and what - we think and feel."

Also co-authors on the study are Paula Niedenthal and Nathalie Dalle, both at the Universite Blaise Pascall, Clermont-Ferrand, France.

For more information, please contact

Associate Professor Jamin Halberstadt
Department of Psychology
University of Otago

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