In an early experiment in emotional perception, Russian film director Lev Kuleshov in the 1910s staged a short film. He paired emotionally neutral footage of a Russian silent film star with emotionally charged scenes. He cut between the actor and a woman in a coffin, a child at play, and even a bowl of soup. Audiences, not realizing the shots of the actor were the exact same footage repeated without alteration, "saw" in the actor's face the emotions that fit the context: for instance, sadness for the dead woman, love for the child and yearning for the soup.
The discovery led to the rise of the "montage" movement in Soviet cinema and to a revolution in subtle screen acting technique.
A group of international researchers from United States, New Zealand and France, teamed with professional actors, have again put human response to facial expressions to the test, concluding that our ability to evaluate the emotional states of others is not altogether reliable.
"Our findings indicate that what we think has a noticeable effect on our perceptions," said Piotr Winkielman, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, in a press release about the study.
In the experiment described in the September issue of the journal Psychological Science, participants were shown still images of the actors that had been computer-morphed to express an ambiguous emotion midway between happiness and anger. At that time the participants were prompted to think of the faces as either happy or angry. Then they were shown movies of 100 frames of the actor's face slowly changing expression, from happy to angry. Participants were then asked to find the frame of the movie that depicted the image of the face they as they had seen it initially.
Researchers found that people who had initially perceived an ambiguous face as angry selected a frame closer to the angry end of the transition than the original picture they had seen.
In a control branch of the experiment, individuals screened images of Asian calligraphy, or were prompted to think of emotionally neutral concepts such as "reliable" or "messy" while viewing the images. According to the study there were no effects associated with these filler items.
Researchers also recorded subtle behavioral responses to the ambiguous images. Using sensors to monitor electrical impulses in the muscles that control facial expression, they found that people tended to put on a frown when presented with an image they had previously interpreted as angry.
"Participants using "happy" to interpret an ambiguous emotional expression expressed more happiness on their own face, compared with participants using angry to interpret the same expression," wrote co-author Jamin Halberstadt, of the University of Otago in New Zealand, along with Paula Niedenthal of University of Clermont-Ferrand, France.
Emotional response to facial expressions, the researchers said, is largely automatic and, "involves at least partial simulation of the neural activity present when the concept was originally learned." Thus researchers argue, how a person responds to facial expressions becomes embodied in the individual, coloring their future perceptions.
"In real social interactions, facial expressions are blends of multiple emotions — they are open to interpretation," said Halberstadt, "this means that two people can have different recollections about the same emotional episode, yet both be correct about what they 'saw.'"
"The novel finding here is that our body is the interface: The place where thoughts and perceptions meet. It supports a growing area of research on 'embodied cognition' and 'embodied emotion.' Our corporeal self is intimately intertwined with how — and what — we think and feel," Winkielman said.
While Hollywood might take an aesthetic interest in this study, or perhaps in some of the actors who participated, the researchers say its implications reach further. In addition to helping put in perspective everyday interpersonal misunderstandings, they say their findings might benefit socially anxious or traumatized individuals, or those with persistent or dysfunctional ways of understanding emotions, such as Asperger's syndrome.
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