Facial Inferences: Facial Expressions or Emotional Labels?


Amber Anderson

Faculty Mentor(s)

Anthony Stahelski (Psychology), Mary Radeke (Psychology)


Happy, surprised, fearful, disgusted, sad, or angry are classic emotional labels inferred from facial expressions (Ekman & Friesen, 1971). This study examines the impact different emotional labels have on social trait and personality inferences while viewing the same facial expression. In an online survey, participants were randomly shown pictures of scowling younger and older male and females chosen from a facial database (Ebner, Riediger & Lindenberger, 2010) while completing the Self-Assessment Manikin (SAM) Temperament Assessment scale, and five social perception questions. Specific emotional labels were deemed as either ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ according to Ekman and Friesen (for example, labeling a smiling face as happy). Comparing the data collected from the participants who labeled a scowling facial expression as angry to those who labeled the expression as disgusted, fearful or sad indicated that those who labeled the expressions as angry found the face as significantly more negative on six of the nine dependent variables (pleasing to look at, honesty, threat, negative, dominant, and ‘bad’). Those who saw the faces as disgusted, fearful or sad had significantly less negative inferences. These findings suggest that negativity per se is determined by facial expressions, and the assigned emotional labels can reduce or intensify that negativity.

Keywords: Emotional Labels, Facial Expressions, Personality Inferences


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