Individual Differences in Recognition of Facial Expressions of Emotion

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Jones, Margaret Sterner
Huebner, Robert W.
Accurate communication of emotional meaning through facial expressions is one of many communication systems which aid in building positive social interactions and human relationships. Numerous studies have confirmed that the face is an important vehicle for communication of emotional messages and that facial expressions of at least nine fundamental emotions appear to be recognizable across cultures. It has been supposed that one's level of accuracy in recognition of facial expressions of emotion is related to effective emotion communication, the development of empathy, and effective interpersonal relationships. However, there has to date been little research which has investigated individual differences in emotional sensitivity as expressed through accurate recognition of facial expressions of emotion. The questions in this study asked whether differences in age, sex, education and occupation, intelligence, psychological differentiation, empathy, extraversion, or neuroticism affect the ability to accurately recognize the facial expressions of interest, joy, surprise, distress, disgust, anger, shame, fear, and contempt. Thirty-six women and nineteen men, ranging in age from 18 to 72 and representing five education levels and seven occupational categories participated in the study. They were asked to place each of 36 photographs of facial expressions (taken from Izard, 1971) into one of nine emotion categories. In addition, the subjects filled out a demographic sheet indicating age, sex, education level, major area of study and present occupation. Levels of intelligence, psychological differentiation, empathy, extraversion, and neuroticism were measured by the Western Personnel Test, the Group Embedded Figures Test, the Mehrabian-Epstein Empathy Questionnaire, and the Eysenck Personality Inventory respectively. Nine emotion accuracy scores and a total emotion response score were generated and subjected to statistical analysis using the remaining scores as independent variables. Analyses included correlation, analysis of variance and multiple regression analysis as appropriate in order to answer the nine research questions. Results showed significant relationships between total accuracy scores and age (r = -.51), empathy (r = .32) and a measure of "faking good'' from the EPI (r = -.23). Women were significantly better than men in identifying Shame. Persons with a Fine Arts background were better than other groups in identifying Disgust and Shame. Intelligence, extraversion, neuroticism, and psychological differentiation were not significantly related to emotion recognition scores. It was concluded that emotional sensitivity declined with age and with level of empathy. Emotional sensitivity also declined as one's need to "fake good'' increased. It was suggested that there exists an emotion awareness or emotion sensitivity factor which is independent of, but may interact with, cognitive, perceptual, and other personality variables. Results of the present study appear to provide support for Izard's theory of emotion. Several suggestions for future research to clarify the findings were made.