Emotions Facilitate the Communication of Ambiguous Group Memberships

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It is well known that emotions intersect with obvious social categories (e.g., race), influencing both how targets are categorized and the emotions that are read from their faces. Here, we examined the influence of emotional expression on the perception of less obvious group memberships for which, in the absence of obvious and stable physical markers, emotion may serve as a major avenue for group categorization and identification. Specifically, we examined whether emotions are embedded in the mental representations of sexual orientation and political affiliation, and whether people may use emotional expressions to communicate these group memberships to others. Using reverse correlation methods, we found that mental representations of gay and liberal faces were characterized by more positive facial expressions than mental representations of straight and conservative faces (Study 1). Furthermore, participants were evaluated as expressing more positive emotions when enacting self-defined “gay” and “liberal” versus “straight” and “conservative” facial expressions in the lab (Study 2). In addition, neutral faces morphed with happiness were perceived as more gay than when morphed with anger, and when compared to unmorphed controls (Study 3). Finally, we found that affect facilitated perceptions of sexual orientation and political affiliation in naturalistic settings (Study 4). Together, these studies suggest that emotion is a defining characteristic of person construal that people tend to use both when signaling their group memberships and when receiving those signals to categorize others.

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