Science is hard

ResearchBlogging.orgYesterday we tried to replicate the effect that John Eastwood, Daniel Smilek, and Philip Merikle observed -- that negative facial expressions distract us from even the simplest tasks more than positive facial expressions. Hundreds of our readers watched one of two videos and were charged with counting the number of "upturned arcs" or "downturned arcs." Here's a sample video:

In this video, the "faces" formed by the arcs are smiling, but in the other video they were frowning. Both clips showed the identical number of upturned and downturned arcs -- six. Yet we weren't able to replicate Eastwood's teams results. Here are our findings:


When respondents were asked to count upturned arcs, they did better with frowning faces -- the opposite of what the original study found. When they counted downturned arcs, they did better with smiling faces, as expected, but overall, in our mini-study, there was no significant difference between counting accuracy for smiling faces and frowning faces.

Why the difference?

Well, even though Eastwood's team had fewer participants, they each repeated the experiment 240 times, with the "faces" appearing in random different locations on the screen, and random variation in the number of arcs turned in each direction. This minimized biases that might have been introduced by a particular configuration of arcs, and overall, thousands of different sets of arcs were viewed -- many more than in our replication.

Still think Eastman et al's results are a fluke? Their study actually included a second experiment. This time, instead of counting arcs, viewers counted ovals, in displays like this:


The displays included positive (smiling), negative (frowning), and neutral expressions. As before, the researchers tracked time to count the shapes as well as counting accuracy. Here are the results:


Once again, reaction times were significantly slower and accuracy was lower for the frowning faces, compared both to the happy faces and the neutral faces. The researchers say this is clear evidence that negative facial expressions can distract us from even very basic counting tasks.

Eastwood, J.D., Smilek, D., Merikle, P.M. (2003). Negative facial expression captures attention and disrupts performance Perception & Psychophysics, 65 (3), 352-358


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What is the dimension that can be partitioned into positive and negative? What makes a face belong to either category? Do you expect the same response to a sad face as to an angry face? The one invites commiseration; the other invites vigilance. The one urges us to approach; the other prepares us to fight or fly. Why would these belong together?

What, besides 'happy faces' belong to the 'positive' category? If there are no others, then this category is 'happy', and the other category is 'not happy'.

Clumping emotions into the categories 'positive' and 'negative' seems to me to be hazardous. Where does a blank expression fit in? There is no 'neutral', so is it 'positive' or 'negative'? If you don't have a place for a neutral expression, then your categorization scheme is not complete.

My advice is to not use these as categories. If you cannot come up with real names for your categories, then you really don't know what your categories include or exclude.

I am bothered by the use of 'positive' as a euphemism for 'good'. What is objectionable about 'good'? And 'negative' can be very good news, as in the case where your oncologist calls you to tell you all the tests were negative. We also use 'negative' to denote the absence of something, as in 'negative contact': that's neither good or bad, it's just the situation.

Some of this usage I suspect is due to the fact that many people are unsure how to correctly spell the plurals of 'plus' and 'minus', which are shorthand terms for 'advantages' and 'disadvantages'.

By Snarly Old Fart (not verified) on 14 Oct 2008 #permalink


"Positive" and "Negative" are terms that are used in the psychological study of mood and emotion. "Positive" generally refers to emotions that are attractive or pleasant, such as joy or happiness. "Negative" refers to emotions that are aversive.

There is a neutral facial expression, contrary to your assertion.

These are real names and they are real categories. Positive and negative are not euphemisms for "good" and "bad," they are more precise terms. Fear, for example, is a negative emotion, but it is not necessarily "good" or "bad." It can be good if it motivates self-preservatory action, but it can be bad if it renders a person unable to respond to a threat.