Facial-emotional perception is influenced by many kinds of contexts, including conceptual information and sense stimuli, according to a new study.
A scowl can be read as fear if a dangerous situation is described or as disgust if the posture of its body indicates reaction to a soiled object.
"Humans are exquisitely sensitive to context, and that can very dramatically shape what is seen in a face," says psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard School of Medicine.
"Strip away the context, and it is difficult to accurately perceive emotion in a face."
The paper refutes the contention that there are six to 10 biologically basic emotions, each encoded in a particular facial arrangement, which can be read easily in an image of a disembodied face by anyone, anywhere, says Barrett.
Eye-tracking experiments show that, depending on the meaning derived from the context, people focus on different salient facial features. Language aids facial perception, as well.
Study participants routinely did better naming the emotions in pouting, sneering, or smiling faces when the experimenter supplied words to choose from than when they had to come up with the words themselves.
Equally important is the cultural context of an expressive face, Barrett says.
People from cultures that are psychologically similar can read each other's emotions with relative ease, an effect that similar language or even facial structure does not produce.
The real-world implications of such research are "substantial," says Barrett.
For instance, it offers needed nuance to the understanding changes in emotion perception in people with dementia or certain psychopathologies, and even in healthy older people, all of whom "may have difficulty accurately perceiving emotion in static caricature faces, but might do fine in everyday life," where context is available, she adds.
The study has been published in the Current Directions in Psychological Science.