Can happiness or anger on one face perceptually jump to a nearby face? For example, imagine you are in a crowded room, standing next to someone who makes an angry face. Might someone on the other side of the room misperceive the anger as coming from your face? Some recently published research suggests that the answer depends on whether you are a man or woman.
In a paper published recently in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Becca Neel and her colleagues examined a phenomenon called “illusory conjunctions.” Cognitive scientists have found that, if you’re not paying close attention, your mind may misperceive a feature on one object as belonging to another object. For example, if you see a green circle next to a red square, and you are adding numbers in your head, you may report that the circle was red. Cognitive psychologists originally assumed that these illusory correlations were random and arbitrary. In a previous study with Vaughn Becker and Uriah Anderson, however, Neel found that illusory conjunctions may be influenced by “top-down” social biases. They found that an angry expression on a white man’s face was more likely to jump to a black man’s face than the reverse.
In the most recent series of studies, Neel examined whether the bias was sexist as well as racist. Subjects in an experiment were given a cognitively demanding task: Two numbers were rapidly flashed on a screen, and the subject’s task was to add them up. So if you were a subject, you might see (+3) on the left side of the screen and (-8) on the right. In between the two numbers, two photographs would also appear, perhaps a smiling man, and a woman with a neutral expression.
As soon as you gave your answer to the math problem, a dot would appear where one of the faces had been. Your task now would be to remember whether it was a man or a woman, or whether the face had been angry or happy.
People are usually quite good at remembering emotional expressions, but since the faces had only flashed for a fraction of a second, and the subjects had been distracted with the math problem, they made mistakes on 20 to 45 percent of trials. But the mistakes were not completely random: anger was more likely to “jump” from a woman’s face onto a man’s, whereas happiness was more likely to “jump” from a man’s face onto a woman’s.
Photographs of real faces are by nature idiosyncratic, so the intensity of anger on a man’s face, or happiness on a woman’s face, might be clearer. Those natural variations could suppress or enhance mistakes in one direction or another. In a second experiment, the researchers used computer generated faces, allowing a more precise control of the emotional expressions on the faces (the picture — shown above — illustrates an angry and happy morph of the same feminine face). The results in this case were even clearer: Feminine faces grabbed happiness, masculine faces grabbed anger.
The researchers also found that these differences were not due to the general tendency to stereotype men as angry and women as happy. When a man was shown next to a woman with a neutral expression, for example, the tendency to mistakenly perceive him as angry was substantially lower. It was when the woman was angry that the error was especially likely to occur, demonstrating that the emotion was in fact making a perceptual jump.
Why does this mistake happen? As Neel discussed when she recently presented the findings at the annual meetings of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, the findings fit with a larger body of research demonstrating that cognitive biases often work in functional ways. Men are more likely to be physically violent, and the mind is biased not to miss anger on a man’s face. Sometimes this leads to mistakes, but those mistakes suggest that the mind is wired like a smoke detector: You’d rather set the alarm to go off once in a while when there’s no fire, than to miss the rare occasion when you actually are in danger.
Becker, D. V., Kenrick, D. T., Neuberg, S. L., Blackwell, K. C., & Smith, D. M. (2007). The confounded nature of angry men and happy women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 179–190.
Becker, D. V., Neel, R., & Anderson, U. S. (2010). Illusory conjunctions of angry facial expressions follow intergroup biases. Psychological Science, 21, 938–940.
Neel, R., Becker, D.V., Neuberg, S.L., & Kenrick, D.T. (2012). Who expressed what emotion? Men grab anger, women grab happiness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 583-586.