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How Weeping Influences the Perception of Facial Expressions: The Signal Value of Tears

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Abstract

Emotional tears have been proposed to serve as a signal of distress, appeasement, and helplessness, which promotes prosocial responses in observers. They may also facilitate the perception of sadness. A still unanswered question is what information tears convey about emotional states when they are combined with different muscular facial expressions. The current study evaluated three hypotheses: Tears facilitate inferences about (a) emotion intensity in general (b) sadness in particular, or (c) helplessness-related appraisal and behavioral intentions. In the first experiment, participants viewed pictures of (non)tearful real and artificial faces displaying anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, and neutral state. They had to report which of the seven expressions they recognized, and to rate its intensity, sincerity, and felt empathy. Tears appeared to facilitate the perception of sadness, but also of anger and fear, while they decreased the perception of disgust and surprise. The ratings of the intensity, the perceived sincerity, and the experienced empathy followed a similar pattern. In the second experiment, participants had to indicate if briefly (50 ms) presented (non)tearful faces showed a particular expression, and we measured their accuracy and reaction times. The results of the first experiment were not corroborated. Overall, the findings lend most support to the appraisal/behavioral intentions hypothesis and less support for the intensity and the sadness enhancement hypotheses.

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Acknowledgements

We greatly appreciate the efforts of Femke van Geffen, Sebastian M. Merino-Norambuena, Marjolein N. M. Smits, and Ruben D. Vromans for their help in data collection in Study 1, and Martijn B. Goudbeek for providing us with valuable comments on potential statistical solutions.

Funding

This work was supported by the NEWFELPRO fund under Grant No. 32 and UNIRI Grant 17.05.2.1.03.

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Correspondence to Asmir Gračanin.

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Gračanin, A., Krahmer, E., Balsters, M. et al. How Weeping Influences the Perception of Facial Expressions: The Signal Value of Tears. J Nonverbal Behav 45, 83–105 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-020-00347-x

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