A new study shows that our past influences our interpretations of the facial expressions on the people around us, as well as our confidence in those interpretations.

Trusting our interpretations is essential to avoiding misunderstandings or even potentially dangerous situations, note researchers at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and University Hospitals of Geneva (HUG) in Switzerland.

The researchers have been testing how confident we feel when judging other people’s emotions, and what areas of the brain are used.

The results show that beliefs about our own emotional interpretation stem directly from experiences stored in our memory. In other words, our past life influences our interpretations — and sometimes leads us astray, the researchers said.

Our daily decisions come with a degree of confidence, yet that confidence doesn’t always go hand in hand with the accuracy of those decisions, the researchers said. We are sometimes wrong even when we are entirely confident in having made the right decision as, for instance, when making a poor investment in the stock market.

The same goes for our social interactions: We are constantly interpreting the expressions on the faces of those around us, and the belief we have in our own interpretations is paramount, the researchers say.

“Take the case of Trayvon Martin in the US, which is a perfect illustration of this,” said Dr. Indrit Bègue, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychiatry in UNIGE’s Faculty of Medicine and a doctor in the Adult Psychiatry Service in the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health at HUG.

“Trayvon was a 17-year-old African-American teenager who was shot dead by George Zimmerman, despite being unarmed. Zimmerman thought the young boy ‘looked suspicious,’ an altercation broke out with the fatal outcome that we’re all familiar with.”

But why was Zimmerman so sure that Martin “looked suspicious” and was dangerous, when all he was doing was waiting in front of his father’s house?

It is in an attempt to answer this type of question that the UNIGE and HUG researchers were so interested to test the level of confidence we have in our interpretations of the emotional behavior of others, and to discover which areas of the brain are activated during these interpretations.

The scientists decided to measure confidence-related behavior by asking 34 participants to judge emotional faces displaying a mix of happy and angry emotions, with each face being framed by two horizontal bars of varying thickness. Some of the faces were very clearly happy or angry, while others were highly ambiguous.

The participants first had to define what emotion was represented on each of the 128 faces that flashed up. Then they had to choose which of the two bars was thicker. Finally, for every decision they made, participants had to indicate their level of confidence in their choice on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all sure) to 6 (certain). “The bars were used to evaluate their confidence in visual perception, which has already been studied in depth. Here it served as a control mechanism,” explains Patrik Vuilleumier, a professor in UNIGE’s Department of fundamental neurosciences.

The results of the tests surprised the researchers.

“Strikingly, the average level of confidence in emotional recognition was higher (5.88 points) than for visual perception (4.95 points), even though participants made more errors in emotional recognition (79 percent correct answers) than with the lines (82 percent correct answers),” Indrit said.

In fact, learning emotional recognition is not easy. The person may be ironic, lying, or prevented from expressing their facial emotions due to social conventions, say if their boss is present.

According to the researchers, it follows that it is more difficult to correctly calibrate our confidence in recognizing other people’s emotions in the absence of any feedback.

Additionally, we have to interpret an expression very quickly because it is fleeting. So, we feel that our first impression is the right one, and trust our judgment about an angry face or mouth, the researchers note.

On the other hand, judging perception — such as in the bars around the photos — may be more attentive and benefits from direct feedback about its accuracy. If there is hesitation, confidence is lower than for emotions, because we know that we can easily be wrong and be contradicted, the researchers explain.

The researchers also examined the neural mechanisms during this process of confidence on one’s emotional recognition by providing participants with a functional MRI.

“When the participants judged the lines, the perception (visual areas) and attention (frontal areas) zones were activated,” Vuilleumier said. “But when assessing confidence in recognizing emotions, areas linked to autobiographical and contextual memory lit up, such as the parahippocampal gyrus and the retrosplenial/posterior cingulate cortex.”

This demonstrates that brain systems storing personal and contextual memories are directly involved in beliefs on emotional recognition, and that they determine the accuracy of the interpretation of facial expressions and the trust placed in them, he said.

“The fact that past experiences are so fundamental to govern our confidence may cause problems in our day-to-day life, because they can skew our judgment, as happened in the Trayvon Martin case, when Zimmerman didn’t see just an impatient young man waiting outside his home, but an angry black man lurking in front of a house,” Indrit said.

“That’s why it’s crucial to give feedback about our emotions early on, so we can teach children to interpret them correctly.”

The study was published in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Source: University of Geneva