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Neutral faces in context: Their emotional meaning and their function


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.

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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.

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

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