Cognitive Daily

ResearchBlogging.orgYou’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”:

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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:

i-c39a924e9f9fbd9460c76323f39a3bec-maner2.gif

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: 10.1037/0022-3514.88.1.63

Comments

  1. #1 Sandeep Gautam
    October 3, 2008

    I am surprised that the baseline men-finding-women-attractive rates are not greater than that for baseline women-finding-men-attractive rates. As per Error management theory, men have not much to loose from type I errors and so should ideally find women more attarctive (and mateable) than they really are; while women , requiring much parental invetsment, should be more discerning and less likely to commit type I errors of believing someone is commited, when they are, in fact, not. Or does the EMT come into effect only when the men/ women are aroused and in a ‘mating’ frame of mind? does the original paper talk about the ‘increased men’s rating of women’s faces after arousal’ in terms of EMT when they offer evolutionary explanations for the same?
    For an application of EMT, see http://the-mouse-trap.blogspot.com/2008/04/god-is-just-type-i-error.html

  2. #2 Brockb
    October 3, 2008

    Most studies like this use college students for the experimental population. This is understandable, since they’re readily available to academic researchers. I can’t help wondering, however, whether the results would be different if the experiment was applied to an older, more experienced population. I remember (vaguely) what I was like at college age, and it’s a bit disconcerting to realize how much of psychological and cognitive theory is based on the responses of 19 and 20 year olds.

  3. #3 Tony Jeremiah
    October 3, 2008

    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.

    Hmm,

    Interesting explanation and accompanying data, but I’m wondering about their originality.

    The explanation seems to fit well as an appraisal theory of emotion . The general nature of the experiments seem like a contemporary version of an experiment conducted by Schacter and Singer (1962). In that experiment, participants were injected with adrenalin (which causes sympathetic nervous system arousal), and were either told their arousal was due to the injection, or, they were not told anything at all. Each participant was then exposed to a situation in which a confederate acted either happy or angry. Participants who were not told their arousal state was due to the injection, were more likely to report feeling happy or angry, suggesting that their evaluation of the situation induced their emotional state.

    Of course an argument can be made that the Schacter/Singer theory focused on conscious appraisal, while the experiment reported here focused on unconscious appraisal. Regardless, it does still appear to fall under the general paradigm of appraisal theories of emotion.

  4. #4 ringo
    October 3, 2008

    Hmm. But the protagonists (both buffalo bill and hannibal lecter) in the Silence of the Lambs were white males. What clip were they shown? I can’t believe this didn’t have an effect.

  5. #5 Tony Jeremiah
    October 3, 2008

    I am surprised that the baseline men-finding-women-attractive rates are not greater than that for baseline women-finding-men-attractive rates.

    Actually, there seems to be an interaction. For attractive faces, males appear to be judging attractive women as being more attractive than females are judging attractive males as attractive; for average faces, males are judging average women as more unattractive than females are judging average males as unattractive. This is consistent with the literature (e.g., David Buss) showing that women place less emphasis on appearance than men (and more emphasis on social traits) as Dave indicates in his comments.

    Or does the EMT come into effect only when the men/ women are aroused and in a ‘mating’ frame of mind? does the original paper talk about the ‘increased men’s rating of women’s faces after arousal’ in terms of EMT when they offer evolutionary explanations for the same?

    I don’t think this experimental paradigm fits well with the EMT paradigm. A situation involving social risk-taking (e.g., use of the speed dating paradigm) would probably be required to observe any specific EMT phenomena. This experiment involves participants only looking at pictures. So at best, you might get a diluted EMT phenomenon.

    What might be interesting though, is to determine what the baseline ratings of attached women who are ovulating and non-ovulating women would like for this study. According to Bressan and Stranieri (2008), attached women prefer attractive males when ovulating, and less attractive males when not ovulating.

    Hmm. But the protagonists (both buffalo bill and hannibal lecter) in the Silence of the Lambs were white males. What clip were they shown? I can’t believe this didn’t have an effect.

    The participants in the study were all White males. An effect observed was that White male participants judged (neutral) Black male faces as more angry than (neutral) White male faces after watching a film meant to invoke an aggressive emotion (Silence of the Lambs), relative to a more neutral film (Koyaanisqatsi). It’s interesting (according to the graph) that this same pattern appears to be showing up when also judging White females (and not White males).

  6. #6 scicurious
    October 3, 2008

    Interesting post! With regard to females rating more socially dominant men, I believe there’s a study out there where they presented the same men wearing either a tie or a Burger King hat, and identified them as either a well-paying profession or a Burger King employee. Even though the same faces were presented, women rated the ones in Burger King hats lower. Unfortunately, I cannot for the life of me remember where I SAW that study.

  7. #7 KAS
    October 4, 2008

    Brockb,

    I just had to respond… the disparity is not in age and that is a common misconception in our understanding youth and teenagers in particular. Your mind is wonderful at 19 and 20; certainly intelligent as is average for the percentages and far more fertile for open minded thinking; Other than that, the youth is no different than the ‘experienced’ they are simply starting out whereas you are in full throw. It is common for people to age and forget the intellectual thoughts, analysis and contemplation of the youth. For instance; people often veiw children as limited and ignorant, whereas they are not. A child computes information the same, it is simply the communications between the mind and body that are not yet defined as well as the lack of a knowledge foundation to build upon. Perception is still perception. A 19yo perception is just a valid and valuable as a 40yo perception.

    ~KAS

  8. #8 S
    October 9, 2008

    KAS,

    I agree with what you are saying, but I think that Brockb raised a valid point not with regard to the intelligence or value of the younger mind.

    I thought a similar thing to Brockb regarding age upon reading “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.”

    Is it possible that older brains have more reasonable and informed predispoisitions? For instance, a young woman may percieve a large, looming male to be scary whereas an older woman may be more confident in her abilities to defend herself and thus less afraid? And probably the other way around for young men vs older men ;)

    Although, the opposite could be true. Older people may be too rigid in their long held predispositions, and so not as good at objective reasoning.

  9. #9 klandestine
    October 27, 2008

    #4: White supremacy and projection of socio-and psycho-pathology on Blacks as a race and the repeated exposure to this sterotype accounts for this reuslt. Notice that the association persists in the face of real data (familiar White males are far more likely to commit a violent crime, especially one asoociated with mental disorder than Blacks)as well as in the case of the film.