Familiar Faces Look Happier Than Unfamiliar Ones

The way we perceive faces is not as objective as we may think.
The way we perceive faces is not as objective as we may think.

You would think you’d be able to judge if a person looks happy, regardless of whether that person is a friend or a stranger. Turns out, we may not be as objective as we think — and we have a definite preference for familiar faces.

A new study from Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, shows that we tend to perceive familiar faces as looking happier than unfamiliar ones, even when the faces express the same emotion.

“We show that familiarity with someone else’s face affects the happiness you perceive in subsequent facial expressions from that person,” researcher Evan W. Carr of Columbia Business School told EurekAlert. “Our findings suggest that familiarity — just having ‘expertise’ with someone else’s face through repeated exposure — not only influences traditional ratings of liking, attractiveness, etc., but also impacts ‘deeper’ perceptions of the actual emotion you can extract from that person.”

This isn’t the first study to find that people prefer things they’re familiar with, but Carr and his colleagues Timothy F. Brady and Piotr Winkielman hypothesized that familiarity could actually guide the way we perceive everything we come across.

“Familiarity is a really basic topic in psychology, and it has powerful effects on what we say we prefer,” Carr tells Yahoo Beauty. “We tend to like people, products, designs, etc., that we’ve already encountered. However, most of that previous psychology research has focused on what people say they like. If familiarity has really powerful positive effects on our preferences, we hypothesized that it might actually make us see familiar things as more positive — i.e. we actually see a familiar person as smiling more, rather than just saying we like them more.”

Conducting their research at the University of California, San Diego’s department of psychology, the researchers developed two experiments to explore how people react to familiar and unfamiliar faces. The first experiment weighed reactions to familiar and unfamiliar faces that exhibited a variety of emotions, from 50 percent happy to neutral to 50 percent angry.

The results indicated that study participants were more likely to identify familiar faces as happier than unfamiliar ones, even when each face exhibited the same degree of happiness. The same was not true, though, for faces with angry expressions.

In the second experiment, the researchers asked study participants to decide whether each in a series of faces looked happy or angry, while also estimating how happy the face looked on a scale of 0 to 100 percent.

The results were in line with those of the first experiment, with subjects finding that familiar faces appeared happier than unfamiliar faces, but only when the faces displayed neutral or positive emotions. The perceived degree of happiness also increased as the positive features increased, as they did in the first experiment.

The findings reveal that emotion perception processes adapt based on familiarity and how this can shift our perceptions significantly.

“Emotion perception isn’t only the ‘formulaic’ combination of facial features,” Carr told EurekAlert. “It also dynamically incorporates cues specific to the individual you’re trying to decode.”

Carr added: “Even the judgment of how happy someone looks is inherently subjective to some extent, depending on your previous experience with the person along with the type of expression you’re judging.”

Carr tells Yahoo Beauty that the results could be applied to many social scenarios, the most prevalent being advertising and politics. “Faces are used all the time to promote brands, sell brands, etc. And familiarity effects have been studied a lot in marketing and advertising, in terms of how it impacts what people buy,” he says. “But our research suggests that repeated exposure to faces makes those faces look objectively more positive — which, if paired with a brand or product, could lead to more positive attitudes and buying behavior.”

In terms of politics, Carr believes the research highlights bias in news consumption. “People are increasingly exposed to only the type of political news/media they want to see — i.e. Facebook shows you mostly/only news that fits your political point of view. So, for example, if you’re a hardcore liberal, and you repeatedly see photos and stories of Barack Obama over time, our research suggests that you might start to literally see him as appearing more positive compared to other conservatives,” he explains. “Overall, I can see these familiarity effects being related to the hyper-polarization that we’re seeing in modern U.S. politics right now, especially when you consider how people consume news online through social media these days.”

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