Museum of Science, Boston

Peak Shift

How do we "read" others emotions?

If you’re wondering how someone is feeling, a smile or a scowl may give you a lot of information. Facial expressions are often the most obvious sign that someone is feeling happy, sad, or angry. But you may not realize how much information you are getting from other types of cues, like the environment, the context, or the words you are seeing or hearing. Because words allow us to generalize and label things, they may affect how we perceive and categorize other things that we see.

In this study, we want to know whether the words people see affect the emotions they perceive in others’ faces. To find out, we show people (ages 6 and older) pictures of two faces with different expressions (e.g., afraid and angry) on a computer screen. We ask them to remember these faces as well as they can. Then they play a computer game where they see other faces with slightly different expressions, and we ask them to choose which of the two original faces it looks like. Before they see some of the faces, a word (like “angry”, or “honest”) might briefly appear on the screen.

We want to know whether the words (especially those that describe emotions) change the way that people judge the emotions in the face. Our previous research has shown that many aspects of the environment and the context of the situation (including words and other images) can affect people’s judgments of emotions.

This research will help us to better understand how people use all of the information in their environment to make decisions about others’ emotions.

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

Tamarin Communication

Visit the cotton-top tamarins and watch their facial expressions. Do you think these monkeys are showing emotions on their faces? In their vocalizations? What kinds of emotions do you see and hear?

Try to imagine being one of the tamarin monkeys. Try to take all you know about your language and erase it. Can you imagine life without language? How else might monkeys communicate with one another?

Try it at Home

Language without Words

Although all animals are able to communicate, their communication is often very different from the language that humans use. For example, some animals communicate only by touch or smell, or through visual displays. Think of some animals who communicate through smell or touch rather than with their voices. Why do they use this method? How does their method of communicating make them adapted to their environment?

Animal Emotions

Do all animals express emotions? Think of some ways that different animals might show that they are afraid, happy, or angry. Do they do the same things that humans do to express their emotions? What is different?