Angry faces and voices are more likely to be perceived as masculine while happy facial expressions and voices are associated with femininity, a new study conducted by the UK-based University of Essex has revealed.
The study led by Sebastian Korb from the Department of Psychology, University of Essex, found that how people understand the emotional expression of a face or voice is heavily influenced by perceived idea of a particular sex and vice versa. The paper, published in the journal Emotion, reveals that both men and women subconsciously make the same mistakes.
Korb hopes the research will be expanded and could help make people more aware of the built-in biases. He said, “This study shows how important it is not to rely too much on your first impressions as they can easily be wrong. Next time you find yourself attributing happiness or sadness to a woman, be aware of your bias and possible misinterpretation. Interestingly, there wasn’t a gender divide in the way the perceived sex of a face affected emotional judgements, but women were slightly more sensitive to subtle changes in emotion overall.”
The research used 121 avatar faces and 121 human voices created by modifying the emotional expression in degrees from happy to angry, and the sex on a sliding scale from male to female. A total of 256 participants in three studies were shown the mock-ups or played the voices and asked to judge emotions and whether they were expressed by a man or a woman.
When comparing the size of the effects, it was found for both faces and voices that emotion influenced the perception of sex more than the other way around. It is thought this may be due to an unconscious activation of the amygdala – an important emotion centre in the brain.
This almond-shaped cluster of neurons located deep in the brain allows us to rapidly detect and react to threats, such as an angry attacker, but is not involved in determining a person’s sex. It is also speculated that being biased to perceive males as angry is an evolutionary advantage as it prepares for a fight or flight response.
It remains unclear what the precise cause for these emotion perception biases could be, but gender stereotypes about how men and women are expected to feel and show emotions are likely to play a role.