Body language critical in signaling emotion
This past holiday season when students watched their relatives opening presents, they looked at more than just their faces to gauge their reactions, according to University psychology professor Alexander Todorov.
“In reality, you pay attention to a variety of cues, and you know what’s happening even though you are unaware of most of them,” Todorov said, describing the findings of a recent study. “Half of participants say the information comes from the face, but you are actually paying attention to all the cues in the situation.”
Todorov conducted the study on body cues and facial expressions with Hillel Aviezer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Yaacov Trope of New York University in the University’s Social Cognition and Social Neuroscience Lab.
Contrary to popular belief, a person’s body language serves as a better cue of intense emotion than does his or her facial expression, Todorov’s research found.
“Here the idea was that if you take extremely intense emotions — like joy, grief, pain, pleasure — when the intensity is very high, the expressions become uninformative,” Todorov explained. When the participants were shown faces without context, they were not reliably able to identify the correct emotion.
Todorov noted that the study’s approach to analyzing peoples’ judgment of emotion was unique. He explained that participants were shown images of people experiencing high-intensity emotions, such as tennis players in a high stakes match and contestants in the television show “Extreme Home Makeover.”
The researchers found that body language powerfully signals emotion, even when participants view a distorted image.
“If you take a tennis winner face, or a tennis player who had just won a point, and you superimpose it on the loser player’s body, people see the face as expressing a negative emotion, so the emotion always goes with the body,” Todorov explained.
Todorov noted that the study has practical implications for the treatment of certain types of medical disorders or disabilities.
“One of the problems that people with autism have is that they don’t have a good understanding of expressions of emotion,” he said. “This work suggests that emotional expressions are not as ambiguous as we think and that they should have training programs that deal with the body and not just the face.”
One of Todorov’s thesis advisees, Laura Martinez ’13, took his class on the psychology of face perception and is conducting similar research. Her thesis will explore the relative contributions of facial expressions and body language in perceiving emotion.
“Research shows that autistic people aren’t too good about recognizing emotions, and that got me interested in how people in general look at emotions,” Martinez explained.
For her thesis, Martinez will edit film of volunteer actors and display cut-out faces and bodies to study participants, who will interpret the emotions from the images. She said that her thesis’s approach is unique in its use of video.
“A lot of work has been done perceiving emotion in photos of people’s faces, but no one has really done a more dynamic study looking at videos,” Martinez said.
Martinez said she enjoys working with Todorov. “It’s pretty awesome,” she said. “He gets excited about it since it’s a developing area of psychology.”
Todorov plans to continue researching the social perception of faces in his lab. Demonstrations of his work can be found at tlab.princeton.edu.