Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Emotion perception

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Emotion perception:
What is emotion perception and how can it be improved?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Key Questions

This book chapter will address the following questions, aiming to contribute to the theme "understanding and improving our motivational and emotional lives using psychological science":

  • What is emotion perception?
  • How do we perceive emotion?
  • What are the mechanisms involved?
  • What are the benefits of emotion perception?
  • How can one improve their emotion perception?

Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of this chapter, the reader should be able to:

  • Define emotion perception and explain the concept in terms of perceptual cues and the mechanisms involved in emotion perception, with reference to psychological theory.
  • Critically discuss the benefits of emotion perception and suggest means of improving ones' emotion perception with reference to psychological literature.

Through emotion, the human body portrays a significant volume of information, informing others of an individual's intentions and goals as well as aspects of their internal state such as their emotions (Ma, Paterson & Pollick, 2006). The portrayal of this information is formulated through various cues including but not limited to one’s posture, facial expression, movements and vocal inflections. Thus, the ability to perceive emotion cues is imperative to one's functioning in social contexts (Ma et al., 2006).

Figure 1. Picture of a young girl smiling

Based on the girl's facial expression, as depicted in Figure 1, is she happy? Sad? Disgusted? How would you approach communicating and interacting with her? How would this change if the individual's facial expressions were similar to those of the individuals in Figure 2. In this activity, you are utilising the concept of emotion perception, demonstrating that as humans we use environmental cues, such as those portrayed by the human body to perceive the emotions of others. Did you find the prior task easy? Theoretically, emotion perception is involuntary and thus this task should be simple (Barrett and Kensinger, 2010; Calder, Lawrence & Young, , 2001; Cosmides & Tooby, 2013; Nook, Zaki & Lindquist, 2015; Langenecker, Bieliauskas, Rapport, Zubieta, Wilde and Berent, 2005; Phillips, 2003).However, this is not the case for everyone. Literature has demonstrated a deficit in emotion perception for numerous populations, such as the elderly and those diagnosed with psychological disorders, specifically schizophernia[spelling?]. It is therefore important to understand what emotion perception is and the means to improve it; this is what the following chapter aims to explore.

Figure 2.A man and child depicting the emotion of grief as presented in Charles Darwin's publication 'The Expression of Emotions'.

What is emotion perception[grammar?][edit | edit source]

Social cognition, as described by Penn et al. (2009), refers to the mental operations that underly[spelling?] interactions in a social context; inclusive of ones'[grammar?] capacity to perceive the intentions and dispositions of those they come into contact with. Social cognition is a set of interrelated processes applied to the recognition, understanding, accurate processing and effective use of social cues and information (Penn et al., 2009). Penn et al. (2009), articulates that a key aspect of social cognition is emotion perception.

Definition of emotion perception[edit | edit source]

As defined by Mitchell and Phillips (2015), the term emotion perception refers to the identification of emotionally salient information in ones' envFtic[say what?] information can be affected by emotion-induced physiological changes, including changes in the pace of speech and tone. Thus, it is through properties like the aforementioned [say what?] that allow for one to perceive emotion through auditory means. Most and Aviner (2009) identified 3 properties which assist in the perception of emotion through verbal cues, fundamental frequency characteristics, intensity and duration/rate of speech. Exemplified within the vocal properties of anger, the aforementioned emotion is characterised by high fundamental frequency properties, a large range of fundamental frequency properties, high intensity and high rate of speech (Most & Aviner, 2009). Literature has demonstrated the significance of verbal cues in emotion perception. In a study conducted by Banse and Scherer (as cited in Most & Aviner, 2009), adults were able to correctly perceive the speaker'[grammar?] emotional state based exclusively upon auditory cues such as vocal inflections.


Faces, as described by Leopold and Rhodes (2010) are amongst the most significant visual stimuli for human beings allowing those communicating within a social context to perceive the emotions of others. Psychological literature utilises the term "facial expressions" to refer to the movement of facial muscles (Lindquist and Gendron, 2013). Researchers assume that the movements observed are an expression of one's internal, emotional state (Lindquist and Gendron, 2013). In this perspective, emotion perception requires that the perceiver decodes the information or emotion encoded in ones' facial muscle movement (Lindquist and Gendron, 2013). Movements such as furrowing of one's eyebrow, and closure of their eyes contribute to a large repertoire of emotional expressions and it is through decoding these that one can perceive the corresponding emotional state (Leopold and Rhodes, 2010). Assuming the role of the perceiver, how would you decode the emotion encoded on the face of the male and child depicted within Figure 1[grammar?]. Furthermore, emotions as explained by Lopez, Reschke, Knothe and Walle (2017), can be perceived through other visual means such as posture. For example, fear as depicted and thus perceived through ones postures involves avoidant and protective physical responses to an external referent (Lopez et al., 2017)[grammar?].

Quiz: Question 1.

How many acoustic properties were identified by Most and Aviner (2009)?


Mechanisms involved in emotion perception[edit | edit source]

How do we perceive emotion, according to psychological theories and physiological literature? Whilst, theoretically some argue that emotions are perceived through mechanisms as adapted throughout evolution; others argue for the active role of the perceiver and their use of priorly attained emotion concepts (Barrett and Kensinger, 2010; Cosmides & Tooby, 2013; Nook et al., 2015). Whilst, theoretically there is contention, literature on the physiological mechanisms is harmonious implicating a multitude of regions in the brain (Calder et al., 2001; Langenecker et al., 2005; Phillips, 2003).

Psychological[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Charles Darwin

Structural hypothesis of emotion perception

Citing Charles Darwin as a person of influence, the structural hypothesis of emotion perception posits that emotion categories; such as, anger, fear, joy and disgust are universally innate, biological states that are prompted by evolutionary adapted neural circuits (Barrett and Kensinger, 2010). These emotional categories are expressed through a configuration of muscle activity in one's face (facial expressions) and are recognised by mental structures that are innate, reflexive and universal (Barrett and Kensinger, 2010). This theory is consistent with the evolutionary perspective of psychology that suggests that the brain is composed of evolved systems, which were derived from the process of natural selection (Cosmides & Tooby, 2013).

Constructivist theories of emotion perception

In contrast to the notions put forth by the structural hypothesis, the new look movement suggests that basic emotion perception is not innate as it is not consistently passive or automatic (Nook et al.,2015). Constructivist theorists apply the concepts presented by the new look movement regarding the active role one plays in constructing perceptions; suggesting that individuals use emotion concepts such as knowledge, expectations, actions and experiences that accompany specific emotions, to identify the emotion expressed by others (Nook et al., 2015).In accordance with this theory, visual perceptual cues, such as the face, communicate ambiguous information about valence and arousal, which perceivers assign to an emotion category utilising the aforementioned emotion concepts (Nook et al., 2015). In support of these notions regarding ambiguity, Nook et al. (2015) summarises that the [what?] literature has indicated that cultures use differing facial cues when communicating and facial movements can belong to and thus be perceived as numerous emotion categories.

Physiological[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Labelled diagram of the brain.

Emotion perception involves three related processes; the identification of emotionally salient information in the environment, the generation of an emotional experience and behavioural response to the process and the regulation of an emotional experience and the subsequent behaviour (Phillips, 2003). Literature as presented by Phillips (2003) and corroborated by Langenecker et al. (2005) has identified regions of the brain that correspond to each of the aforementioned processes. Findings as outlined by Phillips (2003) are indicative of the involvement of a distributed neural system in the perception of emotion, which is inclusive of the "ventral striatum, thalamic nuclei, the amygdala, the anterior insula and ventromedial regions of the prefrontal cortex" (pg.190). For example, the amygdala has been demonstrated to play a significant role in the perception of emotion from the visual expressions of others, specifically threat-related emotions, as well as, sadness and joy (Calder et al., 2001). Refer to figure 2, for a diagram of the aforementioned regions of the brain.

Quiz: Question 2.

With reference to figure 4, the amygdala is part of which lobe in the brain?

Temporal lobe
Parietal lobe
Occipital lobe
Frontal lobe

Benefits of emotion perception[edit | edit source]

In terms of the practical benefits of emotion perception, the ability to perceive emotion through auditory and visual cues is considered instrumental to one's social communication and functioning (Combs, Tosheva, Penn, Basso, Wanner and Laib, 2008; Tremeau et al. 2015). Consider, for example, the impaired social functioning that manifests in psychopathological disorders, such as schizophrenia (Atkinson, Dittrich, Gemmell and Young, 2004). The aforementioned impairment is attributed to the deficits in their ability to perceive and thus respond appropriately to the emotional cues as displayed by others (Atkinson et al., 2004).

Further, consistent with the evolutionary perspective, psychological literature has suggested that emotion perception serves an adaptive advantage (Marinetti, Mesquita, Yik, Cragwall & Gallagher, 2012). Literature, exemplified in a study conducted by Marinetti et al. (2012) has indicated that people perceive emotions related to threat, such as anger and fear more readily than joy and thus is beneficial as a survival mechanism[factual?]. Therefore, with reference to these benefits, the improvement of emotion perception has implications in psychopathology and social functioning and thus means to improve emotion perception have been highly researched within psychological literature.

Quiz: Question 3.

The study conducted by Marinetti et al. (2012) exemplifies the principles found in which psychological perspective?


How to improve emotion perception[edit | edit source]


The neuropeptide oxytocin has been reported to play a role in the regulation of social cognition, specifically in the perception of emotion for facial expressions (Perry, Aviezer, Goldstein, Palgi, Klein and Shamay-Tsoory, 2013). Domes, Heinrichs, Michel, Berger and Herpertz (2007) argue that a possible mechanism that underlies the aforementioned effect of oxytocin, is the increase in focus on the eyes during emotion perception. As stated by Guastella, Mitchell & Dadds (2008), the eyes are communication focal points and therefore are the primary source for perceiving emotion in others. In a study conducted by Guastella et al. (2008), participants in the experimental condition were administered with oxytocin through their nose. Findings from this study demonstrated that compared to a control group, the experimental participants demonstrated an increase in the number of fixation gazes toward the eye region (Guastella et al., 2008). Disorders such as schizophrenia are associated with a deficit in eye gaze, and consequently emotion perception (Guastella et al., 2008). Thus, the administration of oxytocin may have therapeutic advantages in such disorders (Guastella et al., 2008).

Transcranial Random Noise Stimulation

Penton, Dixon, Evans & Banissy (2017) articulate that one approach to aid emotion perception is methods of transcranial electrical stimulation (tES). By definition tES is a non-evasive technique that is utilised to increase or decrease brain stimulation in a targeted brain region (Penton et al., 2017). As a form of tES, transcranial random noise stimulation(tRNS) is has been demonstrated to increase emotion perception in those with functioning and impaired emotion perception, such as the elderly (Penton et al., 2017; Yang & Banissy, 2014). Exemplified by a study conducted by Penton et al. (2017), tRNS when modulating neural activity in the inferior frontal cortex (IFC) enhance the ability to perceive emotions in healthy individuals.Participants in the experimental condition, recieved tRNS to their IFC prior to completion of a facial emotion perception task (Penton et al., 2017). Results indicated a significant difference between those in the control and the experimental conditions; indicating an improvement in emotion perception (Penton et al, 2017). As stated by Yang and Banissy (2014), behavioural evidence has demonstrated that older individuals have a declined ability to perceive emotions. Evidence from neuro-imaging, implicates the inferior frontal gyri (IFG) in the decline of one's ability to perceive emotion, as it degrades with age and has been demonstrated to function in emotion perception (Yang & Banissy, 2014). Stimulation in the aforementioned area through the process of tRNS, has been shown to significantly improve the perception of anger in participants over the age of 60 (Yang & Banissy, 2014). These findings, as discussed by Yang and Banissy (2014), highlight tRNS as a means of improving emotion perception in the typical ageing process.

Case Study: John

John, a 75 year old grandfather is walking home from the shopping centre with his granddaughter, 15. John always walks the same route inclusive of a poorly lit alleyway. Yesterday, when walking this route with his granddaughter he sees a man, as depicted in figure 5 in the alleyway. John continues; however, his granddaughter stops him and explains that the man looks angry and they should go another way. John, however could not perceive the emotion as portrayed by this man and is now fearful that if he was alone he may have been been harmed by the angry man and that his deficit in emotion perception may cause him harm in the future. John explains his fear to his neighbour, who suggests he try tRNS.

As stated by Marinetti et al. (2012), emotion perception serves as a survival mechanism through one's ability to perceive threat based emotions in others, such as anger and therefore protecting one from harm. Thus, John is correct in fearing his safety due to the aforementioned deficit. Literature on tRNS indicates that stimulation through this process on the IFG improves the perception of threat-based emotions in people over 60 (Yang & Banissy, 2014).Therefore, this may improve John's deficit and assist him in feeling safe in the future.

Figure 5. Man depicting the emotion angry, through facial expression and posture

Attention Shaping

With regard to the social cognitive deficits demonstrated in schizophrenics, literature cites emotion perception as one of the most consistent (Combs, Chapman, Waguspack, Basso & Penn, 2011). The aforementioned deficit appears to be stable, such that it occurs in differing phases of schizophrenic disorder; therefore contributing prominently to the social impairment demonstrated in sufferers (Combs et al., 2011). Evidence suggests that the deficit in emotion perception may be caused by a reduction in the time a schizophrenic views facial features that are relevant to emotion perception, such as the eyes and the mouth (Combs, Tosheva, Penn, Basso, Wanner, & Laib, 2008). Attentional shaping interventions utilise computerised attentional prompts, which direct the participants attention to the centre of the face, specifically the eyes, nose and mouth regions and therefore have been demonstrated to improve emotion perception (Combs et al., 2011). For example, findings as presented by Combs et al. (2008) demonstrated that participation in attentional-shaping interventions improved emotion perception through visual cues in schizophrenic patients over time; assessed post-test and in a subsequent follow-up. Attentional shaping as an intervention is considered compensatory, such that instead of restoring the attentional skills of the participant, they learn strategies to improve such skills (Combs et al., 2008).

Quiz: Question 4.

John is an elderly man and is having issues perceiving emotion from visual cues.

Based on the literature and case study discussed which method of improving emotion perception would you use to assist John.

Attention Shaping
None of the above

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

As an aspect of social cognition, the perception of emotion in others facilitates social functioning and thus is a prominent part of human existence. By definition, emotion perception is the identification of emotionally salient information in one environment (Mitchell and Phillips, 2015). Such information manifests in two types of environmental cues, visual cues, such as facial expressions and bodily posture and auditory cues, such as vocal inflections (Mitchell and Phillips, 2015). Theoretical literature presents contrasting perspectives how humans perceive emotions and the mechanisms involved. Exemplifying this, the structural hypothesis emphasises innate, neural circuits; whilst in contrast the constructivist theory accentuates the use of emotion concepts such as knowledge and experience in perceiving emotions (Barrett and Kensinger, 2010; Cosmides & Tooby, 2013; Nook et al., 2015). Publications discussing the involved physiological mechanisms have suggested a distributed system, inclusive of numerous regions of the brain (Calder et al., 2001; Langenecker et al., 2005; Phillips, 2003). As a facilitating factor in social functioning, emotion perception is beneficial to one's sociality; in addition it also serves as a survival mechanism, by allowing for the identification of threat-based emotions in others (Atkinson et al., 2004; Coombs et al., 2008; Marinetti et al., 2012; Tremeau et al., 2015). Psychological disorders, such as schizophrenia are marked deficits in social functioning as a consequence of their decline in ability to perceive emotion (Combs et al., 2011). This deficit is also found in elderly populations (Yang & Banissy, 2014). Research has demonstrated that methods such as attention-shaping, tNRS and the administering of oxytocin can improve emotion perception in healthy adults and those with deficits in emotion perception such as patients with schizophrenia and the elderly (Combs et al., 2008; Combs et al., 2011; Penton et al., 2017; Yang & Banissy, 2014).

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Atkinson, A. P., Dittrich, W. H., Gemmell, A. J., & Young, A. W. (2004). Emotion perception from dynamic and static body expressions in point-light and full-light displays. Perception, 33(6), 717-746. doi: 10.1068/p5096

Barrett, L. F., & Kensinger, E. A. (2010). Context is routinely encoded during emotion perception. Psychological Science, 21(4), 595-599. doi: 10.1177/0956797610363547.

Calder, A. J., Lawrence, A. D., & Young, A. W. (2001). Neuropsychology of fear and loathing. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2(5), 352-363. doi: 10.1038/35072584.

Chen, X., Yang, J., Gan, S., & Yang, Y. (2012). The contribution of sound intensity in vocal emotion perception: behavioral and electrophysiological evidence. PLoS one, 7(1). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030278.

Combs, D. R., Chapman, D., Waguspack, J., Basso, M. R., & Penn, D. L. (2011). Attention shaping as a means to improve emotion perception deficits in outpatients with schizophrenia and impaired controls. Schizophrenia research, 127(1), 151-156.

Combs, D. R., Tosheva, A., Penn, D. L., Basso, M. R., Wanner, J. L., & Laib, K. (2008). Attentional-shaping as a means to improve emotion perception deficits in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia research, 105(1), 68-77. doi: 10.1016/j.schres.2008.05.018.

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2013). Evolutionary psychology: New perspectives on cognition and motivation. Annual review of psychology, 64. 201-229.

Domes, G., Heinrichs, M., Michel, A., Berger, C., & Herpertz, S. C. (2007). Oxytocin improves “mind-reading” in humans. Biological psychiatry, 61(6), 731-733. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2006.07.015

Guastella, A. J., Mitchell, P. B., & Dadds, M. R. (2008). Oxytocin increases gaze to the eye region of human faces. Biological psychiatry, 63(1), 3-5. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2007.06.026

Irani, F., Seligman, S., Kamath, V., Kohler, C., & Gur, R. C. (2012). A meta-analysis of emotion perception and functional outcomes in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia research, 137(1), 203-211. doi:  10.1016/j.schres.2012.01.023

Langenecker, S. A., Bieliauskas, L. A., Rapport, L. J., Zubieta, J. K., Wilde, E. A., & Berent, S. (2005). Face emotion perception and executive functioning deficits in depression. Journal of clinical and experimental neuropsychology, 27(3), 320-333. doi: 10.1080/13803390490490515720.

Leopold, D. A., & Rhodes, G. (2010). A comparative view of face perception. Journal of comparative psychology, 124(3), 233.doi: 10.1037/a0019460

Lindquist, K. A., & Gendron, M. (2013). What’s in a word? Language constructs emotion perception. Emotion Review, 5(1), 66-71. doi: 10.1177/1754073912451351

Lopez, L. D., Reschke, P. J., Knothe, J. M., & Walle, E. A. (2017). Postural communication of emotion: perception of distinct poses of five discrete emotions. Frontiers in psychology, 8.710.

Ma, Y., Paterson, H. M., & Pollick, F. E. (2006). A motion capture library for the study of identity, gender, and emotion perception from biological motion. Behavior research methods, 38(1), 134-141. doi: 10.3758/BF03192758.

Marinetti, C., Mesquita, B., Yik, M., Cragwall, C., & Gallagher, A. H. (2012). Threat advantage: Perception of angry and happy dynamic faces across cultures. Cognition & emotion, 26(7), 1326-1334.

Mitchell, R. L., & Phillips, L. H. (2015). The overlapping relationship between emotion perception and theory of mind. Neuropsychologia, 70 1-10. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.02.018.

Most, T., & Aviner, C. (2009). Auditory, visual, and auditory–visual perception of emotions by individuals with cochlear implants, hearing aids, and normal hearing. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 14(4), 449-464.

Nook, E. C., Lindquist, K. A., & Zaki, J. (2015). A new look at emotion perception: Concepts speed and shape facial emotion recognition. Emotion, 15(5), 569-578. doi:10.1037/a0039166

Penn, D. L., Keefe, R. S., Davis, S. M., Meyer, P. S., Perkins, D. O., Losardo, D., & Lieberman, J. A. (2009). The effects of antipsychotic medications on emotion perception in patients with chronic schizophrenia in the CATIE trial. Schizophrenia research, 115(1), 17-23. doi:  10.1016/j.schres.2009.08.016

Penton, T., Dixon, L., Evans, L., & Banissy, M. J. (2017). Emotion perception improvement following high frequency transcranial random noise of the inferior frontal cortex. Brain Stimulation: Basic, Translational, and Clinical Research in Neuromodulation, 10(4). doi:10.1038/s41598-017-11578-2.

Perry, A., Aviezer, H., Goldstein, P., Palgi, S., Klein, E., & Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2013). Face or body? Oxytocin improves perception of emotions from facial expressions in incongruent emotional body context. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 38(11), 2820-2825. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.07.001

Phillips, M. (2003). Understanding the neurobiology of emotion perception: implications for psychiatry. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 182 (3). 190-192. doi: 10.1192/bjp.182.3.190.

Schirmer, A. & Adolphs, R. (2017). Emotion Perception from Face, Voice, and Touch: Comparisons and Convergence. Trends in Cognitive Science 21(3), 216-228.

Yang,T. & Banissy, M. (2014). Improving Older People’s Emotion Perception Using High-Freqeuncy Random Noise Stimulation (tRNS). Front. Hum. Neurosci. Conference: Belgian Brain Council 2014 MODULATING THE BRAIN: FACTS, FICTION, FUTURE. doi: 10.3389/conf.fnhum.2014.214.00006

External links[edit | edit source]