Whites struggle to tell real from fake smiles on black faces

January 07, 2019

WASHINGTON -- White people and non-black minorities have a harder time telling the difference between genuine and fake smiles on black faces than they do on white faces, a problem black people don't have, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

"Accurate identification of emotion is important to social interaction in general, but it is especially important in interracial settings, which are prone to misinterpretations and misunderstandings," said lead author Justin Friesen, PhD, of the University of Winnipeg. "When emotional identification is impaired, communication is inhibited and can ultimately result in negative, even tragic, outcomes."

The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Previous research has suggested that whites in the United States tend to perceive black faces as angrier than comparable white faces. Thus, Friesen and his colleagues wanted to see if similar biases in emotion identification occur for positive emotions, such as happiness.

The researchers conducted a series of six experiments involving more than 425 participants. In some experiments, the participants were all white; in others, they were all black; and in some, they were a mix that included non-black minorities. What every experiment had in common, though, was that participants were shown smiling white or black faces and asked to rate the level of happiness they perceived from the faces. Some faces portrayed a genuine smile and some were forced or faked smiles.

"We investigated the extent to which individuals could tell the difference between two subtly distinct positive facial expression, Duchenne and non-Duchenne smiles," said Friesen. "Although both expressions depict a smiling mouth, the difference between Duchenne smiles - also known as true smiles - and non-Duchenne smiles - also called false or polite smiles - is the existence of crows' feet around the eyes in the Duchenne smile."

Throughout the experiments, white and non-black minority participants had a harder time differentiating between Duchenne and non-Duchenne smiles on black faces than on white faces. Black participants had no significant problems regardless of the color of the face.

Part of the reason for the discrepancy may be eye contact, according to Friesen. In one experiment, researchers tracked the eye movements of participants and found that whites and non-black minorities spent less time looking at the area around the eyes of black faces than white faces. And in another experiment, where some participants were shown only the eyes instead of a full face, participants had no problem distinguishing between real and fake smiles on black faces.

Friesen suggested that the lack of eye contact may have something to do with social status. People who have less social standing or power may feel they must pay more attention to higher-status groups because these group members potentially have more control or influence over them.

"In North American society, where whites are the numerical majority and historically dominant group, they can often, in a sense, get away with being less skilled at reading social cues and emotions on minority group faces," said Friesen. "That's not a luxury available to lower-status or minority groups, whose outcomes often depend on being able to accurately assess social signals, such as emotions, on whites' faces, even though they belong to a different group."

This inability to differentiate between real and false smiles could lead to serious misunderstandings and negative repercussions in interracial interactions, Friesen said.

"Normally, if someone says something that's insensitive or even insulting, if we don't object explicitly, we can still often convey that we are not impressed using non-verbal expressions, like a false smile," he said. "If white people are less sensitive to these cues of discomfort on black faces, they might be more likely to continue saying or doing things that are actually insensitive or even prejudicial, creating interpersonal difficulties for everybody involved."

Much of face processing is automatic, so people might not even realize they are looking at some groups differently, said Friesen. But awareness of these processes might encourage people to look more into the eyes of others and get a more accurate read on their emotions.

"Given that interracial interactions are often fraught with misunderstandings, our research provides clues to help understand how these events unfold and may also point us in the direction of meaningful strategies to improve group relations," said Friesen. "Directing attention to the eyes may reduce errors in identifying emotions, both negative and positive."
-end-
Article: "Perceiving Happiness in an Intergroup Context: The Role of Race and Attention to the Eyes in Differentiating Between True and False Smiles," by Justin Friesen, PhD, University of Winnipeg; David Sidhu, MSc, University of Calgary; Kurt Hugenberg, PhD, Indiana University; Elena Cañadas, PhD, University of Lausanne; Kerry Kawakami, PhD, Larissa Vingilis-Jaremko, PhD, and Regis Caprara, MA, York University; Amanda Williams, PhD, University of Bristol; Rosa Rodriguez-Bailón, PhD, University of Granada; and Paula Niedenthal, PhD, University of Wisconsin. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published online Jan. 7, 2019.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office and at

http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-pspa0000139.pdf.

Contact: Justin Friesen can be contacted via email at jp.friesen@uwinnipeg.ca or by phone at 204-786-9303.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA's membership includes nearly 115,700 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives.

http://www.apa.org

If you do not want to receive APA news releases, please let us know at public.affairs@apa.org or 202-336-5700.

American Psychological Association

Related Emotions Articles from Brightsurf:

Why are memories attached to emotions so strong?
Multiple neurons in the brain must fire in synchrony to create persistent memories tied to intense emotions, new research from Columbia neuroscientists has found.

The relationship between looking/listening and human emotions
Toyohashi University of Technology has indicated that the relationship between attentional states in response to pictures and sounds and the emotions elicited by them may be different in visual perception and auditory perception.

Multitasking in the workplace can lead to negative emotions
From writing papers to answering emails, it's common for office workers to juggle multiple tasks at once.

Do ER caregivers' on-the-job emotions affect patient care?
Doctors and nurses in emergency departments at four academic centers and four community hospitals in the Northeast reported a wide range of emotions triggered by patients, hospital resources and societal factors, according to a qualitative study led by a University of Massachusetts Amherst social psychologist.

The 'place' of emotions
The entire set of our emotions is mapped in a small region of the brain, a 3 centimeters area of the cortex, according to a study conducted at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, Italy.

Faking emotions at work does more harm than good
Faking your emotions at work to appear more positive likely does more harm than good, according to a University of Arizona researcher.

Students do better in school when they can understand, manage emotions
Students who are better able to understand and manage their emotions effectively, a skill known as emotional intelligence, do better at school than their less skilled peers, as measured by grades and standardized test scores, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

How people want to feel determines whether others can influence their emotions
New Stanford research on emotions shows that people's motivations are a driving factor behind how much they allow others to influence their feelings, such as anger.

Moral emotions, a diagnotic tool for frontotemporal dementia?
A study conducted by Marc Teichmann and Carole Azuar at the Brain and Spine Institute in Paris (France) and at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital shows a particularly marked impairment of moral emotions in patients with frontotemporal dementia (FTD).

Emotions from touch
Touching different types of surfaces may incur certain emotions. This was the conclusion made by the psychologists from the Higher School of Economics in a recent empirical study.

Read More: Emotions News and Emotions Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.