Museum of Science, Boston

Emotion sorting

Can you read someone's mind from their face?

When you look at another person’s face, what kinds of feelings can you see? In this study, we explore how many different feelings people can see in others’ facial expressions.

In this study, we show children and adults pictures of people with different facial expressions, and we ask them to sort the faces into piles based on how the people are feeling.

We expect that some people will make just a few piles—one pile for people who feel good, one pile for people who feel bad. Other people may make a lot of piles for more complex emotions, like anger, fear, sadness, or happiness. By looking at the piles that many people create, we can learn more about how people of all ages decide what others are feeling.

Our laboratory is also interested in how people in different cultures interpret others’ emotions. Members of our laboratory will show these same images to people in Namibia to find out how they would classify the feelings in the pictures. We want to know whether they will sort the pictures similarly to participants in Boston.

This research will help us learn about how people of all ages and cultures perceive others’ emotions, and may one day help people learn to “read” emotions more accurately.

Learn about other research related to Human Biology.

This research is conducted by the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Lab at Northeastern University

Try it at the Museum

Matching expressions

Try the Match the Expression activity near the tamarin enclosure. Can you make the same expression that the chimpanzee is making in the picture? Look at yourself in the mirror and see if your expressions match!

Try to guess what each monkey is feeling. What parts of the face are you looking at in order to make your decisions? Lift up the panels and see if you were correct. Do any of the answers surprise you? The facial expressions of monkeys often resemble human expressions, but they might mean something very different. Is there anything else besides the monkey’s face that could help you guess what the monkey was feeling? What kind of body language or sounds might each monkey make?

Try it at Home

Watching Faces

Try to notice the emotions that other people are expressing throughout the day. What kinds of emotions do you see? What information helps you figure out the emotions people are feeling? Make note of the types of information you use – Are you looking at the person’s face? Or are you paying attention to what they are saying and the context of the situation? Research shows that people can use all of these sources of information to understand what others are thinking and feeling.