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Preconceived notions impact our ability to empathize

As humans, certain facial expressions or actions have become synonymous with certain emotions, like crying and sadness or laughing and happiness.

Emotions are hardwired into our brains, and there are several universal emotions that can be recognized across countries and cultures. Scientists argue that anger, disgust, happiness, fear, sadness, and surprise are six universal emotions we all experience.

Now, a new study found that while emotions themselves may be a universal experience, how people understand and perceive these emotions differs based on preconceived views and beliefs.

For example, one person may associate a fist slamming with both anger and sadness while another may find anger and sadness to be completely different emotions.

Researchers from New York University conducted the study which was published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, and the results provide new insights into how people recognize and link facial expressions to 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,” said Jonathan Freeman, the senior author of the study. “Our findings suggest that people vary in the specific facial cues they utilize for perceiving facial emotion expressions.”

The researchers conducted a series of experiments to see how emotions were conceptualized and if certain pairs of emotions like anger and sadness were closely related in the brain.

First, study participants were shown images of human facial expressions of the six universal emotions and the researchers asked the participants which emotions were being expressed.

Freeman used mouse-tracking technology to follow the participant’s hand movements as they made decisions about the emotions and expressions they were viewing.

If a participant felt two emotions were conceptually more similar, the mouse movements showed that they would attempt to identify a single facial expression as two emotions like anger and disgust.

The last experiment involved a technique called “reverse correlation” and participants were presented with a neutral face that had been overlaid with different patterns of random noise. The noise patterns were linked to subtle differences in expression.

For example, one noise might show a face that looked like it was smiling more than frowning. Participants were then shown two different versions of the face and had to decide which one more closely represented a specific emotion.

The results varied depending on how closely related different emotions were to each participant, showing that our understanding of emotions and expressions is driven by our own conceptualizations and beliefs.

“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,” said Freeman.

“For any given pair of emotions, such as fear and anger, the more a subject believes these emotions are more similar, the more these two emotions visually resemble one another on a person’s face. The results suggest that we may all slightly differ in the facial cues we use to understand others’ emotions because they depend on how we conceptually understand these emotions.”

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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