Anxiety and Ambiguity

Why does that person look so angry?

You don’t have to have any sort of chronic anxiety to understand how easy it is to misunderstand other people’s facial expressions. We often interact with strangers, or even friends, and find ourselves unable to read their emotions, fearing that they are unhappy or angry.

In fact, newly published research suggests that feelings of anxiety do actually make us misread ambiguous facial expressions. Not only are we left unable to accurately determine their emotions, but we are more likely to mistakenly conclude that they are angry.

A group of researchers at the University of Bristol sought to investigate the role that anxiety has on impairing emotion recognition. They brought together a group of volunteers and exposed them to a series of images showing the same face, but with fifteen different emotional expressions. These ranged from surprise and happiness to disgust and anger, and the volunteers were asked to identify each emotion. A follow-up study expanded this analysis to 45 images.

Sounds pretty straightforward, but here is where the experiment gets really interesting. Each participant was given a facemask that pumped air into their lungs. Now, some of these facemasks simply delivered normal oxygen-dominated air, but half of them contained large amounts of carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide spiked participants’ heart rates and blood pressure, causing anxiety attacks.

When compared to the control group, who was given normal air, the participants who inhaled carbon dioxide were about eight percent worse at correctly identifying emotions. Moreover, they tended to perceive anger much more often than happiness.

This is certainly not the first evidence that anxiety emphasizes negative emotional recognition. As this 2016 study outlines, a great deal of research demonstrates how those with social anxiety have trouble recognizing emotion and often attribute anger or sadness to neutral expressions.

Similarly, other disorders, such as depression and eating disorders, thwart one’s understanding of facial expressions.

All of this is perhaps not surprising, however, given the role of the amygdala in the recognition of ambiguous expressions. The amygdala, which is deeply connected with anxiety and fear, is activated when we see people with uncertain expressions, firing according to the level of perceived ambiguity. Similarly, it is also activated when attempting to read fear into other people’s faces.

Given that the amygdala is connected with both anxiety and ambiguous expressions, it would certainly make sense that increased levels of anxiety would thwart effective emotional recognition.

So perhaps, in your next uncertain social interaction, don’t conclude that the other person is angry with you. Perhaps, they are just distracted or not particularly emotive, leading to ambiguous expressions.

For more information on the neurological underpinnings of emotional recognition, check out our past blogs here and here.

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