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Our Emotions Shape our Perspective

S u m m a r y :
Our emotions affect how we perceive the world, says a new paper published in Psychological Science.

Emotions shape perception, concludes a University of California team of researchers from findings generated from two experiments based on the responses of participants to images of people depicting different emotions. Study author, Erika Siegel, a psychological scientist from UC, explains that humans are active perceivers: we form our own perceptions of our environment, our emotions being a main element involved in this dynamic process; furthermore, this perspective changes with our emotions.

“We do not passively detect information in the world and then react to it—we construct perceptions of the world as the architects of our own experience. Our affective feelings are a critical determinant of the experience we create,” the researchers explain. “That is, we do not come to know the world through only our external senses—we see the world differently when we feel pleasant or unpleasant.”

The new study builds up from other research of Siegel’s and her colleagues. They had previously found that changing emotional states beyond the conscious awareness would change people’s first impressions of neutral faces, such that they would perceive the faces as more or less agreeable and trustworthy. Now, the team wanted to find out whether changing the emotional states of humans outside awareness would also change their perception of neutral faces.

The investigators used a technique known as continuous flash suppression to achieve their aim. They exposed participants to stimuli without their knowledge.

In the first experiment, a range of flashing images, alternating between a pixellated image and a neutral face, were shown to their dominant eye. Simultaneously, a low-contrasting image of a neutral, smiling, or angry face was presented to their other eye. In theory, the latter image will be suppressed by the stimulus exposed to the dominant eye; the participants are not supposed to experience it consciously.

At the end, five faces were shown to the volunteers, and they selected the one that was the most similar to the face they saw during the experiments. The results show that while the face shown to the dominant eye was always neutral, the participants would choose smiling faces as the best match if the image shown outside of their consciousness was that of a smiling person.

The second sets of trials entailed the participants guessing the orientation of the suppressed face. Those with the right guesses were excluded from further trials. The resulting findings show that unseen positive faces modified the perception of visible neutral faces.

This study highlights the effect of positive faces on behaviour and decision-making, unlike other studies that show the opposite; also, it constitutes evidence that our perception does not reflect the reality of the world, but it is more of a mental representation thereof, that is heavily affected by our emotions. Siegel and her team look forward to further exploration in this regard; she believes that their results might have real-life implications like daily social interactions, and under more serious settings like judges and jury members determining whether the accused is regretful or not.

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