The Emotion Seen in a Face Can Be a Methodological Artifact: The Process of Elimination Hypothesis

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Abstract

The claim that certain facial expressions signal certain specific emotions has been supported by high observer agreement in labeling the emotion predicted for that expression. Our hypothesis was that, with a method common to the field, high observer agreement can be achieved through a process of elimination: As participants move from trial to trial and they encounter a type of expression not previously encountered in the experiment, they tend to eliminate labels they have already associated with expressions seen on previous trials; they then select among labels not previously used. Seven experiments (total N = 1,068) here showed that the amount of agreement can be altered through a process of elimination. One facial expression not previously theorized to signal any emotion was consensually labeled as disgusted (76%), annoyed (85%), playful (89%), and mischievous (96%). Three quite different facial expressions were labeled nonplussed (82%, 93%, and 82%). A prototypical sad expression was labeled disgusted (55%), and a prototypical fear expression was labeled surprised (55%). A facial expression was labeled with a made-up word (tolen; 53%). Similar results were obtained both in a context focused on demonstrating a process of elimination and in one similar to a commonly used method, with 4 target expressions embedded with other expressions in 24 randomly ordered trials.

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