Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Does It Matter Where We Meet? the Role of Emotional Context in Evaluative First Impressions

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Does It Matter Where We Meet? the Role of Emotional Context in Evaluative First Impressions

Article excerpt

We investigated how emotionality of visual background context influenced perceptual ratings of faces. In two experiments participants rated how positive or negative a face, with a neutral expression (Experiment 1), or unambiguous emotional expression (happy/angry; Experiment 2), appeared when viewed overlaid onto positive, negative, or neutral background context scenes. Faces viewed in a positive context were rated as appearing more positive than when in a neutral or negative context, and faces in negative contexts were rated more negative than when in a positive or neutral context, regardless of the emotional expression portrayed. Notably, congruency of valence in face expression and background context significantly influenced face ratings. These findings suggest that human judgements of faces are relative, and significantly influenced by contextual factors.

Keywords: face, context, emotion

Research has shown that evaluating facial expressions plays a critical role in initiation and maintenance of social interactions and bonds (Tomkins, 1962). Faces in particular signal emotional states and regulate behaviour toward the face (Darwin, 1872/1965; Ekman, 1992). Humans appear to be especially attuned to the emotions conveyed by a facial expression, leading Charles Darwin (1872/ 1965) to suggest it was part of our biological heritage. A large body of literature has been devoted to understanding how humans use and perceive nonverbal emotional cues from facial expressions to evaluate mood (Moody, Mcintosh, Mann, & Weisser, 2007), determine trustworthiness, level of aggression, and approach/avoidance behaviours (Ekman & Friesen, 1974). Understanding and using nonverbal facial cues has been shown to play a role in social interactions with others (Edinger & Patterson, 1983), and first impressions of people (faces) affect subsequent behaviours (Bar, Neta, & Linz, 2006).

Identifying factors that influence our initial perceptions and impressions of faces is thusly valuable in predicting our assessment of others. It is curious then, that many studies of face processing present stimuli in isolation; in our everyday lives we process faces in complex visual scenes, which are sometimes laden with strong emotion. It seems as though advertisers and politicians have long known there is an influence of context on how we perceive people; it is not by accident that we always see Stephen Harper giving his speeches in front of the Canadian flag, or in front of smiling children, but the literature is lacking in clear empirical evidence for the role of context in face evaluation.

It is likely that contextual frames can exert an influence on face processing, in a top-down manner (Bar, 2004). Such a top-down mechanism may be particularly valuable in danger- and/or survival-related situations. It is also likely that top-down mechanisms are particularly relevant when processing socially relevant stimuli such as faces. Indeed studies using face stimuli have shown that activity in the fusiform face area of the brain can be mediated by top-down feedback from prefrontal areas in working memory (Druzgal & D'Esposito, 2001) and visual imagery tasks (Mechelli, Price, Friston, & Ishai, 2004).

Research has shown that manipulating pleasantness of the background context affects the speed with which a face is processed. Leppänen and Hietanen (2003) found that happy expressions were identified faster than disgust in a pleasant-smelling context, but that this advantage disappeared in an unpleasant-smelling context, in which identification of happy faces was slowed. They concluded that emotional context (induced by odours in their study) contributes to formation of the representations of emotional faces, and facilitates processing time. A similar effect of context was repotted by Righart and de Gelder (2008). In their study, faces expressing emotions of happiness, fear, or disgust were overlaid onto pleasant, fearful, and disgusting visual background scenes, in either congruent or incongruent pairings. …

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