the way we initially think about the emotions of others biases our subsequent perception (and memory) of their facial expressions. So once we interpret an ambiguous or neutral look as angry or happy, we later remember and actually see it as such.
The researchers showed experimental participants still photographs of faces computer-morphed to express ambiguous emotion and instructed them to think of these faces as either angry or happy. Participants then watched movies of the faces slowly changing expression, from angry to happy, and were asked to find the photograph they had originally seen. People’s initial interpretations influenced their memories: Faces initially interpreted as angry were remembered as expressing more anger than faces initially interpreted as happy.
Even more interesting, the ambiguous faces were also perceived and reacted to differently. By measuring subtle electrical signals coming from the muscles that control facial expressions, the researchers discovered that the participants imitated – on their own faces – the previously interpreted emotion when viewing the ambiguous faces again. In other words, when viewing a facial expression they had once thought about as angry, people expressed more anger themselves than did people viewing the same face if they had initially interpreted it as happy.
Because it is largely automatic, the researchers write, such facial mimicry reflects how the ambiguous face is perceived, revealing that participants were literally seeing different expressions.
“The novel finding here,” said Winkielman, of UC San Diego, “is that our body is the interface: The place where thoughts and perceptions meet. It supports a growing area of research on ‘embodied cognition’ and ‘embodied emotion.’ Our corporeal self is intimately intertwined with how – and what – we think and feel.”