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Embodiment: We React to Exposed Teeth Faster than Other Emotional Displays

Researchers from Germany have discovered strong evidence that with humans, picking faces out of a crowd has a lot less to do with the shape of the face, or the expression upon that face, and a lot more to do with whether the teeth are visible or not. Whilst the study was not intended to address the issue of artificial embodiment (robots, androids, gynoids) blending into a human population rather than standing out, it has obvious implications for such. Especially whilst we are still at the stage of not getting emotional facial expressions quite right.

“The research concerned with the face-in-the-crowd effect essentially deals with the question of how we detect social signals of friendly or unfriendly intent in the human face,” said author Gernot Horstmann, PhD, of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Department of Psychology at Bielefeld University, Germany. “Our results indicate that, contrary to previous assertions, detection of smiles or frowns is relatively slow in crowds of neutral faces, whereas toothy grins and snarls are quite easily detected.”

In two studies, the researchers asked subjects to search for a happy or an angry face within a crowd of neutral faces, and measured the search speed. While the search was relatively slow when emotion was signaled with a closed mouth face, the speed search doubled when emotion was signaled with an open mouth and visible teeth. This was the case for both happy and angry faces, and happy faces were found even somewhat faster than angry faces.

The two studies manage to counter the long held belief of the “face-in-the-crowd” effect, which held that an angry expression, or one that didn't look right, would stand out even in a crowd of people. This does happen, but the effect is slow. Any face displaying teeth – whether a toothy grin or an angry snarl does not matter – is identified almost immediately. So, if an artificial embodiment cannot get the emotional state quite right, hiding the teeth will result in a better ability to pass in a crowd.

Horstmann and his colleagues conducted these experiments as a result of discrepancies in previous studies that investigated visual search for emotional faces. According to the research team, the inconsistent results with respect to which of the two expressions are found faster -- the happy face or the angry face -- suggested that the emotional expression category could not be the only important factor determining the face-in- the-crowd effect.

The scientists believe this new study may explain the discrepancies. "This will probably inspire researchers to clarify whether emotion and, in particular, threat plays an additional, unique role in face detection," said Horstmann.


A toothy grin or angry snarl makes it easy to stand out in a crowd

Of toothy grins and angry snarls—Open mouth displays contribute to efficiency gains in search for emotional faces (Paper)

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