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Perceiving Emotion in the “Neutral” Face: A Powerful Mechanism of Person Perception

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The Social Nature of Emotion Expression

Abstract

This chapter focuses on emotion-relevant information that is consistently and reliably extracted from so-called “neutral” faces. We argue that individuals draw strong inferences about others’ personalities, inner thoughts, and beliefs from facial appearance alone, and do so in what appears to be an effortless, nonreflective manner. Our central thesis rests on two primary assumptions: First, individuals are predisposed to process expressive signals in the face as meaningful forecasts of others’ intentions toward us. Second, individuals are so predisposed to extract expressive meaning from a face that we do so even from so-called “neutral” faces, despite the absence of an expression. As evidence of this proclivity, we present three different ways emotional meaning can be derived from otherwise non-expressive facial displays: facial appearance cues, actual emotional tone, and contextual factors. For these three reasons, we argue that rarely do we perceive non-expressive faces to be emotional blank slates. Instead, we readily derive emotional meaning from them, which then guides our impressions of and responses to others. We couch this review in a theoretical discussion of the question: what is a neutral face?

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Correspondence to Daniel N. Albohn .

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Albohn, D.N., Brandenburg, J.C., Adams, R.B. (2019). Perceiving Emotion in the “Neutral” Face: A Powerful Mechanism of Person Perception. In: Hess, U., Hareli, S. (eds) The Social Nature of Emotion Expression . Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-32968-6_3

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