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All smiles perceived equally: Facial expressions trump target characteristics in impression formation

Abstract

Race, gender, and emotionally expressive facial behavior have been associated with trait inferences in past research. However, it is unclear how interactions among these factors influence trait perceptions. In the current research, we test the roles of targets’ race, gender, and facial expression along with participants’ culture in predicting personality ratings. Caucasian and Asian-American participants rated the big-5 personality traits of either smiling or inexpressive photographs of Caucasian and Asian male and female faces. Ratings of extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness differed significantly across inexpressive targets as a function of race and gender categorization and individual characteristics. Smiling was associated with reduced variation in perceptions of targets’ extraversion and agreeableness relative to ratings made of inexpressive targets. In addition, participant culture generally did not significantly impact trait ratings. Results suggest that emotionally expressive facial behavior reduces the use of information based on race or gender in forming impressions of interpersonally relevant traits.

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Notes

  1. To more fully test the effects of participant culture, we also ran the analyses above using a dichotomous score reflecting high and low levels of American cultural orientation (GEQ-A) for each group instead of participants’ self-reported cultural background. This analysis did not change the pattern of results from that reported below. We also ran the analyses above in a sample restricted to Asian participants which tested whether orientations towards their native cultures predicted trait ratings. In this case, effects on agreeableness ratings reported in text as significant were reduced to marginal significance. However, the overall pattern remained comparable to those reported in the main text, signifying that this may be a result of underpowered analyses rather than true cultural difference.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Dr. Rusan Chen for his advice and assistance with the statistical methods used in this paper. We would also like to thank Alexandra Vaughn, Teddy Semon, and Kyla Machell for their help with data collection.

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Correspondence to Nicole Senft.

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Nicole Senft, Yulia Chentsova Dutton, George A. Patten declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Senft, N., Chentsova-Dutton, Y. & Patten, G.A. All smiles perceived equally: Facial expressions trump target characteristics in impression formation. Motiv Emot 40, 577–587 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-016-9558-6

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Keywords

  • Emotional expression
  • Smiling
  • Impression formation
  • Culture