Reading emotions from faces can reveal your own feelings

Recognising emotions is an important skill that helps us in social encounters. But how you feel yourself affects how well you can do this

This post is also available in Dutch.

As soon as we are born, we are immensely interested in faces. Not so weird, considering reading faces provides a wealth of information. Young children continuously look at their parents and pay attention to the things their parents are looking at. This can help them in learning language (“Look, a duck!”), but also when learning to read emotions. How you do this reveals something about your own emotional state.

The advantages of reading emotions

A nervous glance of mom or dad can mean that what you’re doing is dangerous. Whether toddlers dare to cross a canyon, depends on whether their parents are looking at them nervously or encouragingly. A happy or sad glance can also indicate what type of behaviour is and is not appropriate. Even for adults, the ability to interpret and act on non-verbal emotional information is important for social relationships and well-being.
But what if you’re feeling a certain emotion yourself? If you are very sad, will you recognise someone else’s sadness more easily? Or is it more difficult to recognise happiness because you do not feel that emotion? For a long time, scientists have been performing research on the relation between people’s own (emotional) state and their capabilities to recognise emotions in others.

Role of attention in reading emotions

Emotions can influence your attention. Fear makes you prioritise threatening information. This happens quickly and automatically (so that you’re not aware of it happening) and in this way you protect yourself against potential danger: When you can quickly focus your attention, you will be faster to see danger approaching. This tendency goes too far in people with an anxiety disorder; they enter a state of hyper-alertness in which they pay an unhealthy amount of attention to threatening information.

Emotion recognition as a detector

You can also see this change in attention when you recognise emotions in faces. People who are naturally more afraid, as well as people who have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, are better in recognising angry faces than neutral or happy faces. This is also true for people who are depressed: They tend to pay more attention to sad faces.
How someone reads emotions from faces can be a clue to their own emotional state. But can we use this knowledge to identify people who might be at risk for developing anxiety disorders or depression? Experiencing anxiety or depression is highly distressing and can have a great impact on one’s life, so it would be good if we could detect at an earlier stage whether someone pays attention to a specific type of emotion. 

Stress sensitivity & emotion recognition: research in muZIEum

Stress sensitivity is an important clue in developing anxiety or depression. Research of the Donders Citylab @ muZIEum – an external Donders lab in the experience museum on seeing and blindness muZIEum– investigates the correlation between stress sensitivity and recognising emotions. What points to someone being more sensitive to stress than others? Will you be able to recognise sad or angry faces more quickly or more slowly? Or will you be quick to recognise correctly happy faces? And is this only true for faces that resemble yours in terms of age, gender, and ethnicity? You can participate and help us find the truth!

Author: Floortje Bouwkamp, in cooperation with Janna Vrijsen
Buddy: Felix Klaassen
Editor: Roeland Segeren
Translation: Wessel Hieselaar
Editor Translation: Rebecca Calcott

Image by Andre Huntervia Unsplash

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