Museum of Science, Boston

Facial Affect Perception

How do we make decisions about others' emotions?

Imagine that you walk into your kitchen, and a family member is frowning slightly. How do you decide what they are feeling? What would happen if you thought they were OK when they were really very angry? Or if you thought that they were angry when they weren’t?

In this study, we want to find out how people make decisions about others’ emotions. Children and adults play a computer game where they try to earn points by telling us whether a face on the screen is expressive (e.g., happy, fearful) or not expressive. If they answer correctly, they earn points, but if they answer incorrectly, they lose points. Some of the pictures are easy to judge: they’re very expressive or not expressive at all. To make the game a little harder, some faces are in between these two extremes. In order to learn how to group these “in-between” faces, people playing the game must guess and then see if they got it right! Based on this feedback, they can learn how to respond the next time they see the same face.

We predict that people will learn to group the faces by noticing when they gain or lose points based on their guesses. In daily life, we get similar “feedback” by noticing and responding to others’ behavior.

This study will help us understand how children and adults learn to judge others’ emotions, and may one day help to treat people with emotional and social disorders.

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

Friend or foe?

Imagine you are another chimpanzee, and you are trying to decide whether or not to approach the monkey in the picture. What do you think their facial expression means? Do they look friendly? Angry? Lonely? Lift up the card and see if you guessed correctly. What would happen if you were wrong? How are the meanings of monkeys’ expressions different from those used by humans?

Monkey see, monkey do

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 it at Home

How do you feel?

Spend some time watching others’ facial expressions. Try to categorize them as Happy, Angry, Sad, Afraid, Surprised, or Disgusted. Is it easy or difficult? How many times do you see ambiguous or “in-between” expressions? How do you decide what the person is probably feeling? Can you use cues from the situation, or your knowledge about the person’s personality?