Subjective and objective difficulty of emotional facial expression perception from dynamic stimuli

You can find the original article here (open access).

Is it difficult to read emotions? It can be. Is it always equally difficult? No. Why? That was our question in our study.


For some people reading people’s emotional expressions is easier that for others, and that varies in different situations. But why? Is it about the observer? The person showing the expression? The emotion itself? Or, maybe it’s an interplay of all those?

We asked these questions by investigating how the following influence difficulty of emotion perception:

  • observer’s age and (self-reported) sex,
  • actor’s age and sex,
  • valence (positive/negative) and arousal of the displayed emotion

Why and how?

Hey, aren’t there plenty of papers about it already? Yes, there’s a ton of emotion 𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘰𝘨𝘯𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 papers. They taught us a lot, but one problem is that they assume a “ground truth” – the correct answer. E.g., if you have to label the emotion on top of the page, what would it be?

Whatever you just thought, your answer would be correct if it matches the pre-established label for it in a study. What is it? Usually the actor’s intention. But what if the actor intended “puzzled” and all participants say it’s “surprised”? Are they all wrong? Well, it’s difficult.

We were interested in the 𝘥𝘪𝘧𝘧𝘪𝘤𝘶𝘭𝘵𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘤𝘦𝘱𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯: how hard it is to read an emotion?Importantly, we differentiated 𝘀𝘂𝗯𝗷𝗲𝗰𝘁𝗶𝘃𝗲 (self-rated) and 𝗼𝗯𝗷𝗲𝗰𝘁𝗶𝘃𝗲 difficulty (how far off is your answer from others of similar culture and gender).

For that, we used a “multidimensional emotion perception framework”, in which 441 observers rated the perceived emotion along a number of dimensions (basic emotions + interest) instead of choosing from traditionally-used discrete categories of emotions (“happy”, “surprised”,etc).


Our data showed that subjective and objective emotion perception is more difficult for:

  • older actors
  • female actors (more complex signals?)
  • female observers (less confidence and/or picking up more subtleties?)

Also, males and the youngest/the oldest participants underestimated their difficulty (subjective difficulty was smaller than the objective one).

The effects of valence/arousal were more complicated (see the figure below and check the paper), but overall stimulus-specific factors (valence and arousal) are more important for difficulty than person-specific (actor/observer age/sex) factors.

Here is the take-home message:

  • we measured difficulty of emotion perception (not recognition)
  • the new paradigm is more sensitive and captures a broader view of human emotion perception (consider the surprising higher objective difficulty for females)

Surprised? Interested? Puzzled? Get in touch, we’re happy to discuss!

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