Cognitive Daily

ResearchBlogging.orgEarlier today we asked readers to imagine an angry face. Then, in a surprise poll, we asked what gender the face was. So far our results match those of a study led by D. Vaughn Becker: over three-fourths of the responses were “male.”

In the published study, there was no difference in the response based the respondent’s gender. Both men and women are much more likely to think of a male “angry” face than a female one.

If we’d asked you to picture a happy face instead of an angry face, the results would switch almost as dramatically in the opposite direction: Most people say happy faces are female, although in this case, the effect is entirely due to male respondents. Women’s responses are evenly divided male-female.

But the researchers weren’t just interested in imagined faces. What they really wanted to know is if there’s a gender bias in recognizing facial expressions. Are we more likely to perceive a male face as angry and a female face as happy? Are we quicker and better at recognizing angry faces in men compared to women? If we are, does this mean we’re sexist?

Thirty-eight volunteers sat at computer monitors, which showed pictures of men and women with either angry or happy faces. The task was to indicate, as quickly as possible, whether the faces were happy or angry. Here are the results:

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They were significantly more accurate identifying happy female faces compared to happy male faces. Though the difference here looks small, they were also significantly more accurate identifying angry male faces compared to angry female faces. Reaction times followed a similar pattern — faster identifying angry males and happy females.

Next they repeated the same experiment in reverse. Instead of asking whether the faces were angry or happy, they asked whether they were male or female. Here are the results:

i-2c9ff22c0ae6ce27be3fef07eea32469-becker2.gif

Once again, respondents were significantly more accurate judging happy female faces and angry male faces, and again, response times backed this up.

Are we really biased to see anger in male faces and happiness in female faces? Or do neutral male faces just look angrier than neutral female faces? The prototypical angry expression involves a furrowed brow, compressed mouth, and flared nostrils and “flashing eyes.” Maybe men’s typically larger brow and thinner lips compared to women just look a little angrier. Becker’s team took gender neutral faces from a computer rendering program, then adjusted the parameters of the program to make each face look slightly more masculine or feminine. They showed these faces to volunteers, asking them to rate either which face was angrier or which face looked more masculine. This figure shows some of the results:

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As you can see, even though the faces all have neutral expressions, the more masculine faces were uniformly rated as “angrier” (though I think the final pair of faces in this figure is mislabeled — doesn’t the face on the right look angrier/more masculine to you?).

Taking this a step further, the researchers next took identical gender-neutral computer-rendered faces and attached them to male or female bodies. Viewers were told that the faces had been modified to appear slightly angry or slightly happy, and asked to rate each face for its perceived level of happiness versus anger.

This time, the faces on male bodies were rated as significantly less angry than the faces on female bodies.

So, far from being biased to perceive males as angry and women as happy, we appear to respond honestly to the facial expressions — if there’s any bias at all, it’s in the opposite direction, to see “women” as angrier than they really are. Male faces in their neutral state simply appear angrier than female faces.

You might have thought your response to the poll made you a sexist, but according to Becker’s team, you’re just reacting to natural differences in facial expressions. But why is a male face more like an “angry” face? The researchers say an angry face is one that we may want to avoid because of danger to ourselves. Men are physically larger and therefore more dangerous on average than women, so it makes sense that we associate the typical male face with “anger.”

D. Vaughn Becker, Douglas T. Kenrick, Steven L. Neuberg, K. C. Blackwell, Dylan M. Smith (2007). The confounded nature of angry men and happy women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (2), 179-190 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.2.179

Comments

  1. #1 The Science Pundit
    December 17, 2008

    I didn’t say anything in the comments of the other post, but I voted “female” because the face I envisioned was mostly female. When I was trying to picture an angry face, I thought about people I know who had recently been angry–one was female and one was male. The composite/generic angry face I imagined was was more female than male, but just barely.

  2. #2 Julie Stahlhut
    December 17, 2008

    Hmmm …. I always think of women as being angrier than men, and kids of both sexes as being angrier than adults. Maybe it’s because I also think of anger as the opposite of power.

  3. #3 jrhs
    December 17, 2008

    I think the results might involve some preconceived opinion or feeling due to our “upbringing”. Was Mom or Dad the main disciplinary figure at home? My 2 cents.

  4. #4 Tage Rai
    December 17, 2008

    Two comments-
    1) Part of the reason why the non-gendered faces appear less angry on the male bodies could be that we make judgments of anger by comparing a person to their relevant reference group (i.e. men). Thus, when you see a gender neutral face on a male body, it will be categorized as a man’s face b/c of the body, and since the study showed that men’s faces are perceived as more angry, then the gender neutral face will be perceived as less angry in comparison. Vice-versa for women.

    2) Does the fact that we have representational schemas for emotions and faces that lead us to be slightly more accurate and respond faster (on the order of milliseconds) make us sexist? My guess (and I could be wrong) is that most people who read the post wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that we’re all sexist just b/c we have some barely detectable response biases based on gender (in the face). Presumably, this is b/c the behaviors in question for being a sexist are not the behaviors we’re measuring in the study. Its not about speed of categorization, its about differential treatment in some practical domain, like who gets a job. And yet, something like the IAT has gotten huge traction in doing just that for identifying racism. So the question is, do you think it would make any sense at all to use individual differences in this design as a means to predict individual differences in sexism even though it doesn’t actually test the behaviors of interest for sexism, and if not, what does this analogy say about the IAT?

  5. #5 PJM
    December 17, 2008

    Call me crazy, but it seems that the more masculine faces are categorized that way because of the brow line. No surprise, then, that they would look angrier. The difference between angrily bared teeth and a smile has much more to do with the brow than it does with the mouth. A cartoon angry face has thick brows pointing toward the nose.

    Once you put the more masculine faces on the obviously male body, they don’t look angry anymore; they just look like men, who tend to have larger brows. If you put the more masculine face on an obviously female body, she looks angry, because you don’t normally expect her brow to be so big.

    And I have a profound problem with the concept that any face can produce a “neutral” expression. Expressions have meaning almost exclusively within a social context, and this study mainly seems to prove that.

    Incidentally, in the poll, I imagined my own angry face, looking at my children with the exact same look my mother used to give me when she was mad. Yes, I am female.

  6. #6 S
    December 17, 2008

    jrhs-

    I don’t know anyone, including myself, who was disciplined by their father rather than their mother. Dads are the fun ones!

    As a kid I remember that when my Dad yelled it was a bit offputting but also kind of funny. What was really scary was my mum talking in a very low voice. That was the danger signal.

  7. #7 fullerenedream
    December 17, 2008

    @ S:

    I was disciplined by both my parents, but more by my dad.

  8. #8 MBrown
    December 18, 2008

    Recognizing anger in a male face is an evolutionary advantage. Mom may have done the yelling in childhood but all a kid needs to see is one altercation between two grown men, and their concept of anger gets redefined.

    Its not sexist and its not surpising that men are more prone to see other men as angry, that too is an evolutionary advantage given that a man is more likely to need to respond quickly if a situation turns from anger to violence.

  9. #9 Difference Blog
    December 18, 2008

    What an interesting study! I linked to this post in my discussion of it today, and thanks for pointing it out.

    One thing I think isn’t addressed is if men actually are angry more of the time. If men really are more likely to BE angry, then interpreting their faces as angry is a statistically better bet.

  10. #10 Krishna
    December 18, 2008

    I guess I’m really off. My angry face was male, but when I read, “If we’d asked you to picture a happy face instead of an angry face” I immediately got a mental flash of a happy dog.

  11. #11 sara
    December 19, 2008

    One thing that seems to me is almost always ignored in these type of studies is the ethnic background of the subjects. For example, in the countries that are male-dominated, the memories of people with anger always associates with a male figure (I am claiming that from my observation and not based on a scientific research). Hence the results of this study was no surprise to me at all and I was looking to see if the researchers some how did check the memories of subjects in regard to find out what stereotype they have about angry people. When I think of an angry face with no doubt the images of angry men appears before my eyes while for happy faces again with no exception female faces appears. This is because my memories are like that. Maybe in US or Canada it is the other way around; I don’t know. I wish the researchers had given the ethnicity background of their subjects.

  12. #12 John Landerson
    December 22, 2008

    If the subject has lived with his abusive wife for 20 years, where the wife is chronically in rage, physically abusive and verbally abusive to him (and yes, such people do exist in both sexes), then I hypothesize that the results would be different. But I could be wrong.

  13. #13 just some guy
    February 7, 2009

    Isn’t there a skew though in what is considered a ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ face?

  14. #14 Kati Venho
    June 22, 2009

    No. 11: Which country is not male dominated?

    I am doing a research on female social aggression and aggression differences between the genders in general. It is quite commonly acknowledged that males are physically more aggressive than women, which is hard to disagree with no matter where your sources come from: the playground, high-school, the office, the psychologist -journal…

    Females tend to express their anger in a more subtle way, i.e. through gossiping, social exclusion etc. Girls are therefore more socially, than physically aggressive. Various studies also suggest that girls are better at masking negative emotions, especially anger and disappointment, than are boys (Saarni, 1984 and McDowell, O’Neil & Parke, 2000). Girls are taught to be polite and smile, instead of showing their real emotions and it has also been the conclusion of several studies that mothers tend to ignore girls’ expressions of anger more than of boys.

    Therefore, since there are so many differences already as children, it is probably that these differences continue to flourish in the adulthood as well. Men are in general more encouraged to show their anger, and thus, demonstrate their strong status and appear frightening (concepts usually related to power). Women on the other hand are the caretakers who are not to show angry emotions.

    The point is, the question isn’t really (at least with this method of study) whether men are angrier than women, far less whether it is sexist to think so, but if men express their anger more clearly than women.