Revealing variations in perception of mental states from dynamic facial expressions: A cautionary note

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Although a great deal of research has been conducted on the recognition of basic facial emotions (e.g., anger, happiness, sadness), much less research has been carried out on the more subtle facial expressions of an individual's mental state (e.g., anxiety, disinterest, relief). Of particular concern is that these mental state expressions provide a crucial source of communication in everyday life but little is known about the accuracy with which natural dynamic facial expressions of mental states are identified and, in particular, the variability in mental state perception that is produced. Here we report the findings of two studies that investigated the accuracy and variability with which dynamic facial expressions of mental states were identified by participants. Both studies used stimuli carefully constructed using procedures adopted in previous research, and free-report (Study 1) and forced-choice (Study 2) measures of response accuracy and variability. The findings of both studies showed levels of response accuracy that were accompanied by substantial variation in the labels assigned by observers to each mental state. Thus, when mental states are identified from facial expressions in experiments, the identities attached to these expressions appear to vary considerably across individuals. This variability raises important issues for understanding the identification of mental states in everyday situations and for the use of responses in facial expression research. © 2014 Back, Jordan.

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Author First name, Last name, Institution

Elisa Back, Kingston University
Timothy R. Jordan, Zayed University