Attitude colours perception of facial expressions

Have you ever expected negative treatment from someone and then been pleasantly surprised? Hopefully most of us have experienced this at some point.

Unfortunately, we have probably all gone into situations dealing with people where we expected negative treatment and received exactly that.

A new study conducted at the University of Toronto and published in June in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology measured how our expectations can affect our perception of facial expressions.

According to researchers, individuals who expect discrimination tend to perceive contempt in what is really an ambiguous facial expression, meaning how we read people's faces may be coloured by our own feelings and expectations.

During the study, 37 female university students watched several computer generated movies in which the facial expressions of a man or woman changed between contempt and happiness. Study volunteers pressed a button whenever they noticed a shift in the mood of the face on the screen.

Before viewing the videos all of the women answered a questionnaire dealing with their perception of the prevalence of sexism. Approximately a third of the women expected sexist behaviour from men.

Interestingly, the women who expected sexism from men were much slower to notice changes in the expressions on male faces shown during the study, causing them to perceive contempt for up to a full second longer than women who did not expect sexism.

There was no difference between the two groups when looking at female faces.

While this study dealt specifically with sexism, researchers believe its findings likely apply to those who expect any form of discrimination or prejudicial treatment.

One of the scientists involved in this study explained the situation in a media interview by saying our expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

For example, if you expect to be stereotyped and then encounter someone with an ambiguous expression, you might assume it is negative and react in turn with negativity. Upon sensing your anger or dislike, the individual who was neutral reciprocates in kind, without realizing it, you have created the reaction you expected.

A growing body of evidence shows people who expect prejudice are more likely to view the world with mistrust and tend to do worse academically than those without these expectations.

If we are able to put our expectations aside, we may experience less negativity at the hands of others.

Still, true discrimination does take place all too often and it is important we do not minimize its impact or place blame on its victims. Quite often, people have expectations based on a realistic assessment of treatment received and trusting a gut instinct going into certain situations is wise.

Being prepared for discrimination is not always a bad thing. Not only can this preparation sometimes protect people in potentially dangerous situations, but some studies suggest people who are not surprised by discrimination tend to suffer less when they encounter it.

These findings could also apply to some specific mental health situations such as depression and paranoia. When you believe everyone is down on your or against you, it is easy to create the very situations you expect.

This is very common in clinical practice. People often come in with certain expectations about psychiatry or psychiatrists or perhaps are reminded of someone they know and don't like. Suddenly the therapist is dealing with anger based on past experience and negative expectations rather than the current situation. Of course, this can work in the opposite direction as well.

All of this is food for thought as you encounter people and judge their attitude based on the expression on their face. Consider whether you are seeing their true feelings or simply a reflection of your own expectations.


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