Familiar Faces Look Happier Than Unfamiliar Ones

Familiar Faces Look Happier Than Unfamiliar Ones
Familiar Faces Look Happier Than Unfamiliar Ones

You would think you’d be able to judge if a person looks happy, regardless of whether that person was a friend or a stranger. Turns out, we may not be as objective as we think — and we have a definite preference for familiar faces.

A new study from Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, shows that we tend to perceive familiar faces as looking happier than unfamiliar ones, even when the faces express the same emotion.

“We show that familiarity with someone else’s face affects the happiness you perceive in subsequent facial expressions from that person,” researcher Evan Carr of Columbia Business School told EurekAlert. “Our findings suggest that familiarity — just having ‘expertise’ with someone else’s face through repeated exposure — not only influences traditional ratings of liking, attractiveness, etc., but also impacts ‘deeper’ perceptions of the actual emotion you can extract from that person.”

This isn’t the first study to find that people prefer things they’re familiar with, but Carr and his colleagues Timothy F. Brady and Piotr Winkielman hypothesized that familiarity could actually guide the way we perceive everything we come across.

Conducting their research at the University of California, San Diego’s department of psychology, the researchers developed two experiments to explore how people react to familiar and unfamiliar faces. The first experiment weighed reactions to familiar and unfamiliar faces that exhibited a variety of emotions, from 50 percent happy to neutral to 50 percent angry.

The results indicated that study participants were more likely to identify familiar faces as happier than unfamiliar ones, even when each face exhibited the same degree of happiness. The same was not true, though, for faces with angry expressions.

In the second experiment, the researchers asked study participants to decide whether each in a series of faces looked happy or angry, while also estimating how happy the face looked on a scale of 0 to 100 percent.

The results were in line with those of the first experiment, with subjects finding that familiar faces appeared happier than unfamiliar faces, but only when the faces displayed neutral or positive emotions. The perceived degree of happiness also increased as the positive features increased, as they did in the first experiment.

The findings reveal that emotion perception processes adapt based on familiarity and how this can shift our perceptions significantly.

“Emotion perception isn’t only the ‘formulaic’ combination of facial features,” said Carr. “It also dynamically incorporates cues specific to the individual you’re trying to decode.”

Carr added: “Even the judgment of ‘how happy someone looks’ is inherently subjective to some extent, depending on your previous experience with the person along with the type of expression you’re judging.”

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