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Believing is seeing, psychologists say

September 3, 2009 | 11:29 am

BelievingConventional wisdom holds that seeing is believing. But sometimes we believe and then we see, say the authors of a study published online this week in the journal Psychological Science.

An international team of researchers found that the way we originally think about the emotions of others -- based on facial expressions -- biases what we perceive and remember later. If we interpret a neutral look as angry or happy, for instance, that is how we'll remember it. The study sheds some light on how interpersonal misunderstandings occur.

The study was conducted by showing participants photographs of faces that express ambiguous emotion. The participants were instructed to think of these faces as angry or happy. They then watched movies of the faces slowly changing expression from angry to happy. The participants were asked to find the photograph they had originally seen among this set of morphing images. The faces that were interpreted as angry were remembered as expressing more anger than faces initially interpreted as happy. Watch the video here.

"We imagine our emotional expressions as unambiguous ways of communicating how we're feeling," a co-author of the study, said Jamin Halberstadt, of the University of Otago in New Zealand, in a news release. "But in real social interactions, facial expressions are blends of multiple emotions -- they are open to interpretation. This means that two people can have different recollections about the same emotional episode, yet both be correct about what they 'saw.' "

Halberstadt added: "It's a paradox. The more we seek meaning in other emotions, the less accurate we are in remembering them."

People probably experience this phenomenon multiple times each day. And there are important implications to the research. People who are socially anxious tend to have negative interpretations of others' reactions that may permanently color their perceptions of those people.

"The novel finding here is that our body is the interface: The place where thoughts and perceptions meet," said Piotr Winkielman, a psychology professor at UC San Diego, and co-author of the paper.

-- Shari Roan

Photo: Faces that were computer-morphed to express ambiguous emotion. Credit: Piotr Winkielman / UC, San Diego

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