Is Fear in Your Head? A Comparison of Instructed and Real-Life Expressions of Emotion in the Face and Body

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The majority of emotion perception studies utilize instructed and stereotypical expressions of faces or bodies. While such stimuli are highly standardized and well-recognized, their resemblance to real-life expressions of emotion remains unknown. Here we examined facial and body expressions of fear and anger during real-life situations and compared their recognition to that of instructed expressions of the same emotions. In order to examine the source of the affective signal, expressions of emotion were presented as faces alone, bodies alone, and naturally, as faces with bodies. The results demonstrated striking deviations between recognition of instructed and real-life stimuli, which differed as a function of the emotion expressed. In real-life fearful expressions of emotion, bodies were far better recognized than faces, a pattern not found with instructed expressions of emotion. Anger reactions were better recognized from the body than from the face in both real-life and instructed stimuli. However, the real-life stimuli were overall better recognized than their instructed counterparts. These results indicate that differences between instructed and real-life expressions of emotion are prevalent and raise caution against an overreliance of researchers on instructed affective stimuli. The findings also demonstrate that in real life, facial expression perception may rely heavily on information from the contextualizing body.

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