Interpreting the emotions of others

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Joe Dispenza
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Interpreting the emotions of others

Knowing how to interpret the emotions of others is essential for socializing. This depends on the ability to give meaning to facial expressions.

Last update: 21 September, 2019

Would you like to interpret the emotions of others correctly? We automatically observe dozens or even hundreds of facial expressions every day. These expressions make us react in one way or another, depending on how they are perceived.


A misunderstanding, for example, can stem from our inability to interpret the emotions of others correctly. It therefore concerns personal relationships and specific aspects such as credibility, trust, sincerity, just to name a few. They are all emotions (and sensations) that will depend on the perceptual or non-perceptive information transmitted by facial expressions.


There is no doubt that trust is essential to avoiding potentially dangerous situations. The problem, if anything, is that appearances deceive us on many occasions. For both good and bad. Memory is also our enemy in this:

A team of researchers from the University of Geneva in Switzerland tested how confident we are in judging other people's emotions and which areas of the brain are activated in this process. Their results show that the beliefs of our emotional interpretation come directly from the experiences memorized by the mind and that these often confuse us. The past is not a perfect predictor of the future. The study results were published at the end of December 2018 in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Interpreting the emotions of others

We make dozens, hundreds of decisions every day. All of them imply some degree of trust in someone or something. However, such confidence does not always honor the decision made. Sometimes we are wrong, even when we are completely sure that we have made the right decision. This happens in all aspects of our life.



When it comes to social interactions, we constantly interpret the expressions on the faces of those around us. In this sense, being aware of subjectivity is key when it comes to interpreting the emotions of others. In the Geneva study, the researchers were interested in testing the level of confidence we have in our interpretations of the emotional behavior of others and in finding out which areas of the brain are activated during these interpretations.

Scientists set out to measure trust-related behavior, asking 34 participants to judge different faces that showed positive and negative emotions.. Each face was framed by two horizontal bars of different thickness. Some faces were clearly filled with joy or anger, while others were very ambiguous.

The difficulty of interpreting facial emotions

Participants first had to define which emotion was represented on each of the 128 faces. Then, they had to choose which of the two bars was thicker. Finally, for each decision they made, they also had to indicate the level of confidence in their choice on a scale of 1 to 6. The bars were used to assess their confidence in visual perception, a kind of control mechanism for testing.

The results of this trial surprised the researchers. According to the data collected, the average level of confidence in emotional recognition was higher than in visual perception, even if the participants made more mistakes in emotional recognition than in assigning the right thickness to the lines.

In fact, scholars claim that learning emotional recognition is not as easy as perceptual judgment. Interlocutors can be ironic, lie, or avoid expressing their facial emotions due to social conventions. From this it follows that it is more difficult to correctly assess our trust, recognizing the emotions of other people, in the absence of oral communication.



Furthermore, we are forced to interpret a facial expression very quickly, as it is not kept for long. We therefore believe that our first impression is correct and we trust our judgment in observing a face, of apparent anger or happiness. On the other hand, judging perception is a longer process and is sensitive to direct comments on its accuracy. If there is a doubt, the trust is less than for emotions, because we are aware of our fallibility.


Our memory affects trust

The researchers, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, examined the neuronal mechanisms during this process of trusting emotional recognition. When participants had to tell which of the lines were thicker, they activated perception (visual areas) and areas of attention (frontal areas).

However, in assessing the confidence in the recognition of emotions, the areas related to autobiographical and contextual memory were illuminated, such as the parahippocampal gyrus and the cingulate gyrus.

Thanks to this interesting experiment, the researchers arrived at a twofold and very important result. On the one hand, brain systems that store personal and contextual memories are directly involved in beliefs about emotional recognition.


On the other, they also determine the accuracy of the interpretation of facial expressions and the confidence placed in this interpretation.

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