You’re at a bar, club, or church social and you’ve just met an absolutely stunning member of the opposite sex. You’re single and available, and you detect no signs of romantic commitment in your new conversation-partner. Could he/she be interested in you too?
Or you’re walking down a poorly-lit street in an unfamiliar city. It’s 11:30 p.m., you’re alone, and there are no signs of activity other than the occasional passing car. Suddenly you notice a large man emerge from an alleyway ahead of you and stride purposely in your direction. Is he a threat?
In situations such as these, you’d probably look to the person’s facial expression to get some clue as to how you should respond. Does the attractive member of the opposite sex seem romantically or sexually aroused? Does the large man appear to be angry?
But for nearly a century, psychologists have found that we can be mistaken when we try to judge the emotions of others. Freud called this phenomenon projection, when we attribute our own unacceptable emotions to other people. But in the second scenario, where you might attribute anger to an imposing man, is Freud’s projection really what’s occurring? You’re not angry — you’re afraid.
A team led by Jon Maner believed this scenario might represent a different sort of projection, where a person attributes an emotion to someone else based on their own emotional state, but the attributed emotion isn’t necessarily their own.
Maner’s team asked 105 White college students to watch one of three videos, designed to elicit fear (a clip from Silence of the Lambs), mate-selection (a date scene from Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead), or a neutral emotional state (time-lapse scenes from Koyaanisqatsi). Next they were shown 16 photos of fellow undergraduates, and told they should try to uncover “microexpressions” on these people’s faces. Each of the students pictured, the experimenter told them, had been asked to imagine some particularly emotional event in their life, then assume a neutral facial expression.
Of course the pictures were actually carefully selected to have neutral facial expressions. The people in the pictures had been previously rated as attractive or average-looking, and both White and Black men and women were depicted. The students rated each photo, which they only saw for one second, on a 1 to 9 scale for anger, sexual arousal, fear, and happiness.
So what effect did the scenes they viewed have on the emotion ratings? Take a look at these ratings for “anger”:
The faces were all rated as relatively neutral, but the students who watched the fear-inducing Silence of the Lambs clip rated Black males as significantly more angry than the other faces.
Now compare this to the ratings for sexual arousal after watching the Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead romantic date clip:
White men rated the attractive White female photos as more sexually aroused than any of the other photos. They also rated attractive White female photos as more sexually aroused after watching the romantic movie clip than any of the other clips. This same result didn’t hold true for women’s ratings of the male photos. Why the gender disparity? The researchers say it’s because while men tend to prefer physically attractive women when seeking a mate, women seek socially dominant men — something that’s more difficult to portray in a photo.
In a second experiment, the researchers focused exclusively on perceived anger. But this time they sought better control of the face photos. So they portrayed the identical people either as “Arab” or “non-Arab.” The “Arab” photos were created in photoshop by slightly darkening the skin of White college students and adding stereotypical Arab headdresses. Viewers were shown either Koyaanisqatsi or Silence of the Lambs, and then asked to rate the photos as before. No individual student saw the same person depicted twice, but all the photo subjects appeared as “Arab” or “White” an equal number of times. Viewers were also given an Implicit Attitude Test to determine if they had an implicit bias against Arabs.
While there was no general effect, the viewers who showed more bias against Arabs and had seen the fear-inducing film clip rated “Arab” photos as angrier than non-Arab photos. Viewers with anti-Arab bias who saw only Koyaanisqatsi showed no such effect.
Maner’s team uses these results to argue for an evolutionary psychology explanation: We project emotions on others based on our own emotional state, but those projections are functional: We don’t project fear if we’re afraid — we project anger, the object of our fear. And this fear depends in large part on our pre-existing biases. If we’re predisposed to see a member of a particular group as threatening, then we’re likely to project anger on that person, based on our fear of that group.
The dramatic projection of sexual arousal by male viewers of attractive same-race females can of course be explained by Freud’s version of projection, but it can also be explained by evolutionary psychology. If men are likelier to believe attractive (and therefore presumably healthy and fertile) women are sexually aroused, they are more likely to try to mate with them and produce offspring. Women seek other qualities in their mates, and so are less likely to project sexual arousal on attractive men.
Jon K. Maner, Douglas T. Kenrick, D. Vaughn Becker, Theresa E. Robertson, Brian Hofer, Steven L. Neuberg, Andrew W. Delton, Jonathan Butner, Mark Schaller (2005). Functional Projection: How Fundamental Social Motives Can Bias Interpersonal Perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88 (1), 63-78 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168