How sad are these faces? Depends on how sad you are

Take a look at these schematic faces:


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Just a few simple changes to the mouth and eyebrows can create faces depicting a wide array of emotions. Face 1, for example, is clearly quite happy, and face 12 is sad. Face 7 is obviously angry. But what about face 4? Embarrassed? Happy but sleepy?

Perhaps your own emotion at the time you look at the faces might affect your understanding of the emotions the faces convey, especially when the emotional state depicted is unclear. Perhaps people suffering from clinical depression are stuck in a sort of infinite feedback loop: every face they see seems sadder than it really is, causing more negative emotions, worsening the depression.

Working with healthy college students, a team led by Antoinette L. Bouhuys manipulated their emotional states before asking them to rate the emotions depicted in pictures.

Fifteen students listened to happy music (Delibes' "Coppélia") for seven minutes, then quickly reported on their emotional state, then rated six of the faces for how much they depicted each of 8 different emotions (rejection, invitation, happiness, sadness, anger fear, disgust, and surprise). Then they reported their own emotional state again. The procedure (including the music) was repeated again for the remaining six faces. The other fifteen students listened to sad music (Sibelius' "Swan of Tuonela"), following the same procedure.

The researchers were indeed successful at manipulating emotions, especially with the negative music:


So did students rate the pictures differently when they themselves were experiencing these different emotions? It depends on the type of face they were rating. For most of the faces, there was no difference in the ratings, but for a few types, a pattern emerged:


The students who had heard the depressing music rated ambiguous, less intense faces significantly higher for rejection and sadness than those who heard the happy music. They rated clear, less intense faces significantly higher in fear and lower in invitation / elation than those who listened to the happy music.

So overall people who are feeling more depressed are likely to see more negative emotions and less positive emotions, even in schematic faces, especially when the faces are ambiguous or less intense.

Bouhuys et al. suggest that this phenomenon might make clinical depression self-reinforcing. Depressed people see more negativity even in benign facial expressions, which in turn leads to more depressed emotions.

Bouhuys, A.L., Bloem, G.M., & Groothuis, T.G.G. (1995). Induction of depressed and elated mood by music influences the perception of facial emotional expressions in healthy subjects. Journal of Affective Disorders, 33, 215-226.

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Thinking about myself, I can see this tendency, particularly in terms of invitation/rejection. But I wonder if it is a result of my social-anxiety or a contributing factor. To overly simplify it, do I see people's expressions as rejecting and so am anxious or am I anxious and then interpret the expression as rejecting? This research would indicate the later. It would be interesting to see how individuals rate the faces while depressed and after/during treatment. (Or anxiety, mania, or paranoia suffers for that matter.)

By marciepooh (not verified) on 25 Oct 2007 #permalink

I find it interesting that in the group of students who listened to depressing music, the percent depression drops after rating faces and spikes again after another round of depressing music (Fig. 2 in this post). This suggests that, at least in healthy individuals, a tendency to read negative emotions in ambiguous faces is insufficient to maintain the depressive state.

Did the authors test whether, in the absence of any music, showing students pictures of clear, intense negative faces over and over again made them more likely to ascribe negative emotions to ambiguous faces later? And were there any significant differences between male and female subjects?

Thanks for a very interesting post!

My own anecdotal experience (from living with a bipolar spouse who tends towards depression) is that a depressed person may interpret all sorts of ambiguous sensory input in a more negative way. For example, when he's feeling depressed, my spouse will much more often interpret my silence as rejection -- when I'm very likely only preoccupied with something.

So, did they find out whether seeing sad faces made people see...more sad or just sadder faces?


Oh, Mad Hatter beat me to it. That makes me madder...hey!

Maybe there would be some kind of effect of sperimenter's expectations on the reported level of depression after listening sad music? I mean, if I'm a partecipant and I have to listen to such music, then report my feeling, it's quite easy that I'll report my feeling being sad; that could be not only because I'm really depressed, but pheraps because I'm expected to be so.

By Marco Tatta (not verified) on 26 Oct 2007 #permalink

"Fifteen students listened to happy music...The other fifteen students listened to sad music"

This reminds me of another question: how do humans distinguish happy and sad music? Are there any cultural effects or is there an innate correlation in the human mind between certain emotions and certain types (i.e. emotions) of music?

> happy and sad music?

Just a guess -- listen to the sounds people make, especially children.

Do you think you'd be able to tell happy from sad without being around actual kids, say assuming they were aliens (or you were)? Likely not.

We don't do well understanding whale, we can't intuitively distinguish "Hey cutie pie" from "That propeller put a big hole in my back!"

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 27 Oct 2007 #permalink

I must be really weird but I see face 1 as more intense rather than purely happy, because of the position of the eyebrows. Face 2 seems the truly "happy" face. The eyebrows of the second column seem the least intense and the most ambiguous.

By Ann Nunnally (not verified) on 27 Oct 2007 #permalink

On a related note, here's an interesting site featuring video games created from social psychological research that claims to retrain the mind towards positive emotional states:

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 28 Oct 2007 #permalink

I published a study of a late Rembrandt self-portrait where I concluded that the face presented "liminal" expressions -- expressions on the cusp of several different possibilities.

Which expression the face shows depends on what you bring to the painting at the time.

The effect is remarkable when you see it with the actual painting. The reproductions on my site simulate it reasonably well.

Hey, I just started reading your blog, and already I'm hooked.

I actually linked to your research in a post (found in the url above) on my new blog.

Anyways just thought Id drop by and say my first hi. = )

You're not alone Ann. I think Face 2 is the most unambiguously happy too.

By paragenesis (not verified) on 01 Nov 2007 #permalink

Face #3: Evil Genius

Like Mad Hatter, I took note of the rather erratic line formed by the percent depression of the students who listened to the depressing music in the study. I also noticed that the "sad music" and "happy music" started out at around the same (low) depression percent. Maybe the depression of the "sad music" group receded as time went on because they weren't in too much of a sour mood to begin with, making it easier for the students to "reset" to their "default" mood? I also noticed that the moods of the groups surged after the music was played a second time (the "happy music" group's depression percent fell to zero, and the "sad music" group's depression percent rose much higher than it did with the first bout of music). Maybe the repetition of the music had a sort of "stacking effect" on a person's emotions?

By Zell Ingrams (not verified) on 02 Apr 2008 #permalink

This is a really cool thing for people to do!!! It's great that we (people) can find a way to keep people happy and find out more about music at the same time!!! I have this science project (for I am only 13) and it's about the same thing!!! Music can help heal, music can scare people (even me!) and music can make people happy.