The Face of Fear and Anger: Facial Width-to-Height Ratio Biases Recognition of Angry and Fearful Expressions

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Abstract

The ability to rapidly and accurately decode facial expressions is adaptive for human sociality. Although judgments of emotion are primarily determined by musculature, static face structure can also impact emotion judgments. The current work investigates how facial width-to-height ratio (fWHR), a stable feature of all faces, influences perceivers’ judgments of expressive displays of anger and fear (Studies 1a, 1b, & 2), and anger and happiness (Study 3). Across 4 studies, we provide evidence consistent with the hypothesis that perceivers more readily see anger on faces with high fWHR compared with those with low fWHR, which instead facilitates the recognition of fear and happiness. This bias emerges when participants are led to believe that targets displaying otherwise neutral faces are attempting to mask an emotion (Studies 1a & 1b), and is evident when faces display an emotion (Studies 2 & 3). Together, these studies suggest that target facial width-to-height ratio biases ascriptions of emotion with consequences for emotion recognition speed and accuracy.

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