Dr. Elisabeth Blagrove, University of Warwick – The Shape of Evil Faces

Dec 14, 2012

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Elisabeth Blagrove of the University of Warwick reveals why shapes can influence how we perceive faces.

Elisabeth Blagrove is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Warwick where her teaching and research interests include selective attention, processing of emotional faces, and social attention. Her work has appeared in many peer-reviewed journals and she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Warwick.

About Dr. Blagrove

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Elisabeth Blagrove – The Shape of Evil Faces

Faces are important to us, largely because of the information they give us about other people; their intentions, their emotions, their thoughts….

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that faces grab our attention when they’re in our visual environment.  And, that different facial expressions can hold different levels of importance for us. For example, faces showing negative expressions, such as anger or sadness, are often noticed more easily than positive ones. This might be because negative faces can signal a threat to us.Past research has explored what causes some expressions to be particularly attention-grabbing.

One suggestion is that they can be identified on the basis of the shapes formed when people adopt them. For example, angry faces often contain a v-shape, formed by the eyebrows. It’s also possible that simple shapes convey emotional content by resembling these features. Specifically, downwards pointing triangles might be perceived more negatively because they mimic the v-shaped eyebrows in a threatening face.

To test this idea, here at Warwick, we asked people to indicate whether a centrally placed face was positive or negative. Either side of this were triangles which pointed upwards, downwards or left and right; this was designed to disrupt attention to the central face. We found that downwards pointing triangles interfered with responding to happy faces, but enhanced responses to sad faces. This suggests that downwards pointing triangles convey negative emotion, making it easier to respond to the central negative face, but harder to the positive.

Overall, this shows that even simple shapes are capable of communicating negative or positive emotions.  We think this is due to similarity with the shapes formed by facial features. Looking forwards, we could explore whether other shapes convey emotion, and how these effects might be used outside the lab- perhaps, in advertising or display design.