Emotionally Disguised Faces
Emotional and facial recognition may be even more closely linked than we thought.
In past blogs, we have discussed how better understanding facial recognition may help us better understand emotional recognition, and we have also talked about how understanding emotions requires similar processes as those which identify faces.
During that discussion, we explained how recognizing faces is an often instantaneous process that synthesizes not only facial features but also assesses deviations from the norm to determine emotional states.
But we have not discussed how different emotions may make facial recognition harder! A recent study by Dr. Annabelle Redfern from the University of Bristol found that, with unfamiliar faces, different emotional expressions significantly hamper our ability to identify the faces.
Dr. Redfern exposed participants to images of actors in movie stills, monitoring how long it took them to learn how to identify that actor in subsequent images. While this seems straightforward, she also divided the participants into two experimental groups.
The first group was exposed to actors with generally expressionless or “neutral” faces. This first set of images didn’t show a particularly emotive face, while the second group was exposed to pictures showing distinctive emotional expressions.
The researchers found that participants had a harder time learning from the emotional images than from the neutral ones, both in terms of a lower level of accuracy and a slower response time. Similarly, when groups of respondents training to identify neutral faces were asked to apply this knowledge to more expressive faces, they faltered and were significantly less accurate.
As Dr. Redfern concluded, “The differences we found point to the idea that facial expressions and facial identity are not treated separately by our brains; and instead, we may mentally store someone’s expressions along with their faces.”
It is important to note that this was done with unfamiliar faces, as we almost instantaneously can recognize familiar ones. However, this results in important practical implications.
For example, witness testimony in legal proceedings often depends on facial recognition, but this can become difficult if a witness got a glimpse of a face with one expression and now sees that face with a quite similar expression.