Advertisement

Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Neutral faces in context: Their emotional meaning and their function

Abstract

We report two studies which attempt to explain why some researchers found that neutral faces determine judgments of recognition as strongly as expressions of basic emotion, even through discrepant contextual information. In the first study we discarded the possibility that neutral faces could have an intense but undetected emotional content: 60 students' dimensional ratings showed that 10 neutral faces were perceived as less emotional than 10 emotional expressions. In Study 2 we tested whether neutral faces can convey strong emotional messages in some contexts: 128 students' dimensional ratings on 36 discrepant combinations of neutral faces or expressions with contextual information were more predictable from expressions when the contextual information consisted of common, everyday situations, but were more predictable from neutral faces when the context was an uncommon, extreme situation. In line with our hypothesis, we discuss these paradoxical findings as being caused by the salience of neutral faces in some particular contexts.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

References

  1. Bateson, G. (1976).Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine Books.

  2. Bruce, V. (1988).Recognising faces. Hove, UK: Erlbaum.

  3. Burgoon, J. K. (1983). Nonverbal violations of expectations. In J. M. Wiemann & R. P. Harrison (Eds.),Nonverbal interaction (Sage Annual Reviews of Communication Research Vol. 11, pp. 77–111). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

  4. Camras, L. A., Malatesta, C., & Izard, C. E. (1991). The development of facial expressions in infancy. In R. S. Feldman & B. Rime (Eds.),Fundamentals of nonverbal behavior (pp. 73–105). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  5. Carrera, P. (1992).Expresion facial y contexto: una perspectiva situacional [Facial expression and context: an approach focused on the situation]. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, Madrid, Spain.

  6. Corraliza, J. A. (1987).La experiencia del ambiente [The experience of the environment]. Madrid, Spain: Tecnos.

  7. Ekman, P., Friesen, W. V., & Ellsworth, P. (1982a). What are the relative contributions of facial behavior and contextual information to the judgment of emotion? In P. Ekman (Ed.),Emotion in the human face (2nd ed., pp. 111–127). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  8. Ekman, P., Friesen, W. V., & Ellsworth, P. (1982b). What emotion categories or dimensions can observers judge from facial behavior? In P. Ekman (Ed.),Emotion in the human face (2nd ed., pp. 39–56). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  9. Ekman, P., & Oster, H. (1982). Review of research, 1970–1980. In P. Ekman (Ed.),Emotion in the human face (2nd ed., pp. 147–173). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  10. Etcoff, N. L., & Magee, J. J. (1992). Categorical perception of facial expressions.Cognition, 44, 227–240.

  11. Fernandez-Dols, J. M., Sierra, B., & Ruiz-Belda, M. A. (1993). On the clarity of expressive and contextual information of emotions: A methodological critique.European Journal of Social Psychology, 23, 195–202.

  12. Fernandez-Dols, J. M., Wallbott, H., & Sanchez, F. (1991). Emotion category accessibility and the decoding of emotion from facial expression and context.Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 15, 107–123.

  13. Frijda, N. H. (1969). Recognition of emotion. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.),Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 4, pp. 167–223). New York: Academic Press.

  14. Goodenough, F. L., & Tinker, M. A. (1931). The relative potency of facial expression and verbal description of stimulus in the judgment of emotion.Comparative Psychology, 12, 365–370.

  15. Knudsen, H. R., & Muzekari, L. H. (1983). The effects of verbal statements of context on facial expressions.Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 7, 202–211.

  16. Matsumoto, D. (1983). Behavioral predictions based on perceptions of facial expressions of emotion.Social Behavior and Personality, 11, 97–104.

  17. Matsumoto, D., & Ekman, P. (1988).Japanese and Caucasian facial expressions of emotion (IACFEE) and neutral faccs (JACNeuf). [Slides & brochure]. San Francisco: San Francisco State University.

  18. Mehrabian, A., & Russell, J. A. (1974).An approach to environmental psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  19. Nakamura, M., Buck, R., & Kenny, D. A. (1990). Relative contributions of expressive behavior and contextual information to the judgment of the emotional state of another.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 1032–1039.

  20. Osgood, C. E. (1966). Dimensionality of the semantic space for communication via facial expressions.Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 7, 1–30.

  21. Russell, J. A. (1980). A circumplex model of affect.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 1161–1178.

  22. Russell, J. A., & Bullock, M. (1985). Multidimensional scaling of emotional facial expressions: Similarity from preschoolers to adults.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48, 1290–1298.

  23. Russell, J. A., & Fehr, B. (1987). Relativity in the perception of emotion in facial expressions.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 116, 223–237.

  24. Russell, J. A., & Fehr, B. (1988). Reply to Ekman and O'Sullivan.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 117, 89–90.

  25. Schlosberg, H. (1952). The description of facial expressions in terms of two dimensions.Journal of Experimental Psychology, 44, 229–237.

  26. Schlosberg, H. (1954). Three dimensions of emotion.Psychological Review, 61, 81–88.

  27. Serrano, J. M. (1989).Reconocimiento y discriminación de expresiones faciales de emociones en lactantes [Recognition and discrimination of facial expressions in infants]. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Madrid, Spain.

  28. Serrano, J. M., Iglesias, J., & Loeches, A. (1992). Visual discrimination and recognition of facial expressions of anger, fear, and surprise in 4- to 6-month-old infants.Developmental Psychobiology, 25, 411–425.

  29. Taylor, S. E., & Fiske, S. T. (1978). Salience, attention, and attribution: Top of the head phenomena. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.),Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 11, pp. 249–288). New York: Academic Press.

  30. Wallbott, H. G. (1988). Faces in context: The relative importance of facial expression and context information in determining emotion attributions. In K. R. Scherer (Ed.),Facets of emotion (pp. 139–160). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

  31. Watson, S. G. (1972). Judgment of emotion from facial and contextual cue combinations.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 334–342.

  32. Woodworth, R. S. (1938).Experimental psychology. New York: Holt.

Download references

Author information

Correspondence to Pilar Carrera-Levillain or Jose-Miguel Fernandez-Dols.

Additional information

This research was conducted as a part of the first author's doctoral dissertation, and was supported by a grant (PS89-022) of the Spanish DGICyT. We thank David Weston for his help in preparing the text. We also thank two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on a previous draft of this article.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Carrera-Levillain, P., Fernandez-Dols, J. Neutral faces in context: Their emotional meaning and their function. J Nonverbal Behav 18, 281–299 (1994). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02172290

Download citation

Keywords

  • Social Psychology
  • Contextual Information
  • Emotional Expression
  • Emotional Content
  • Extreme Situation