Being able to interpret other people’s emotional states is critical in interpersonal relationships. Feelings can be expressed verbally, but are also exhibited through nonverbal means, including body language and facial expressions. A person’s eyes can reveal even more. In a recent study, Michael T. Stevenson of Penn State’s Department of Psychology decided to test whether students could accurately interpret emotions from the eyes of individuals of the same race and other races. Stevenson also wanted to find out if self-identity, specifically social membership, would influence the interpretation.
For his study, Stevenson enlisted 102 white college students and presented them with pictures of students and staff members from their college and a rival college. The facial images were of white and Asian individuals. Stevenson assessed how highly the participants identified with their college and considered this when he analyzed the results. He found that the participants who felt strongly affiliated with their schools did not interpret eye expressions differently for Asian or white students from their school, but did interpret the emotional states of rival school students’ eyes in a distorted manner, especially the eyes of the Asian students. This finding suggests that self-identification is a significant contributor to emotional decoding, especially while interpreting expressions revealed through the eyes.
Stevenson believes these results add to the existing literature on the processes that lead to in-group harmony. When an individual feels that he or she is interacting with someone of a similar group, in this case from the same school or race, he or she is better able to interpret emotions. However, when interacting with someone perceived to be different, he or she is less able to accurately interpret the emotions. This is of critical importance in situations that require interracial and intercultural harmony. “Successful cross-cultural and cross-racial interactions are of profound importance, necessary for navigating political and economic affairs on a global and domestic level,” Stevenson said. Understanding the processes that cause individuals to have bias in emotional interpretation could lead to approaches that dampen this effect and result in more collaboration and emotional empathy in organizations, governments, and social communities comprised of people from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Stevenson, Michael T., Jose A. Soto, and Reginald B. Adams Jr. More than meets the eye: The role of self-identity in decoding complex emotional states. Emotion 12.5 (2012): 882-86. Print.
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