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Your Eyes Can Give You Away

eyes

That face. I know that face. How do I know that face? Do I wave? Do I know them that well? Everyone has had that experience where they recognize someone’s face, and you may know absolutely nothing about the person, but you know you’ve seen their face before.

How can we recognize people’s faces so easily? Facial recognition is a highly specialized process, and is incredibly accurate. Facial features such as the eyes, nose, mouth, the distance between features, and the shapes of features help us to identity a person’s face.  But when we are in a very emotional situation, are we still as good at facial recognition as we are in regular situations? Past researchers have found that in these strong emotional contexts, positive or negative, facial recognition becomes slower and much less accurate. Emotional information must change the way we recognize faces. So which facial feature is the most important to facial recognition in strong emotional experiences?

To figure out which facial feature is most accurate in facial identification, in 2011 two researchers, K. F. Ryan, and N. Z. Schwartz, conducted an experiment using computer-generated faces in strong positive and negative emotional contexts, as well as neutral contexts. For example, a positive scene would be a face in a nature background, a negative scene would be a face committing an act of violence, and a neutral scene, as shown in the figure below, would consist of a face with an everyday object, like a tape dispenser.

Untitled


A look into the neutral face recognition scene of the experiment

In a select trial of this experiment, one of the three scenes would appear on the screen, then after a few seconds a face would appear in a random location in the scene. Then, the screen would turn bright green to make sure the person wasn’t just rehearsing what the face looked like in their head. After that, three alternative faces would appear on the screen, and the participant was asked to pick the face they just saw. Yet none of the alternative faces were exactly the same as the first face. The alternative faces were identical to the target face except one of their features was manipulated slightly, such as the eye shape or nose shape, as seen in the figure below.

 Slight manipulations in eye shape and nose shape


Slight manipulations in eye shape and nose shape

In the highly emotional contexts, participants made fewer errors in eye shape than in neutral contexts, and made the most errors in regard to nose shape. This means that participants tended to choose the alternative face that had the same eye shape, not nose shape, as the first face in an emotional context. This shows that people tend to remember eye shape most accurately during face recognition in a strong emotional scene, and usually overlook the shape of people’s noses.

This may sound weird, but when you apply this phenomenon to real life, it makes sense. We look into other people’s eyes when we are talking to them, so we pay a lot of attention to their change in shape. What can someone’s nose tell you? Though a crooked nose can indicate previous injury or maybe a past hockey player, it doesn’t tell you much about someone’s emotions. Yet many different eye shapes can reveal emotion; bright eyes can indicate happiness, wincing eyes can express pain, and wide-open eyes can show surprise. We rely on the shape of other’s eyes in order to recognize someone as well as infer the emotional context of the situation, especially if it is a strong expressive scene. We could care less about someone’s nose shape when we are highly emotional and have a brief amount of time for face recognition.

These results can also explain some of the limitations of eyewitness memory. For example, if you witness a crime, you are in a highly negative emotional situation. In this emotional scene, you are converting the criminal’s face to memory differently than you would in a neutral context. You would tend to pay more attention to the criminal’s eye shape because their eyes are giving you more information about the situation than their nose or other facial features would. Later, if you try to identify the criminal on the basis of nose shape, you are more likely to commit errors because noses are ignored in strong emotional scenes. But if you identify the criminal based on the shape of their eyes, you will most likely choose the right person who committed the crime. So criminals beware; your eyes can give you away.

To read the whole article, click HERE.

References

Ryan, K. F., & Schwartz, N. Z. (2013). Face recognition in emotional scenes: Observers remember the eye shape but forget the nose. Perception42(3), 330-340. doi:10.1068/p7359

Ten ways your eyes give you away. (2014). Retrieved April 18, 2014, from MSN Healthy Living website: http://healthyliving.msn.com/diseases/vision/10-ways-your-eyes-give-you-away

 

  1. October 6th, 2014 at 16:03 | #1

    This post is very interesting! As you note in the beginning of the post, we recognize faces in a holistic manner, meaning we recognize faces based on the configuration of the face features such as the eyes, nose and mouth. This study is interesting because it shows that people process faces less holistically/more analytically when they are in a high-emotion context. For example, people detect changes in the eye shape and disregard changes of the nose in emotional contexts. This is because people express their emotions via their eyes and not there nose; therefore, witness know from top-down processing to pay more attention to peoples’ eyes rather than their nose to detect what kind of emotions the person is feeling. By selectively attending to one part of the face, the eyes in this case, a witness is processing the face by features (analytically) and not by configuration. I wonder if this transition to analytic processing occurs in other situations.

  2. October 8th, 2014 at 19:32 | #2

    I really enjoyed the layout of your post (and the advice you provided criminals about eyes)! The visual aids also really helped me to fully imagine what the face recognition task looked like. A study conducted by Harrison & Hole (2009) made me consider 3 explanations for possible biases in face recognition: the own-age bias, in/out groups, and motivation to recognize a face. How would these components affect a participant’s recall? For example, if the age of the presented face was similar to the participants, would that make a difference? If the face was dark or light, would that make a difference? And finally, does an emotional scene versus a neutral scene motivate participants to attend to a face more? It makes sense that eyes are recognized easier than a nose because that is where emotion is often shown; we can apply meaning to the eyes due to top-down processing. But, what if someone was a “nose expert”?– a plastic surgeon, for example, who works with noses daily. Would he or she recognize the noses more readily than a novice because of his/her expertise? Or would the emotional content of a scene override expertise? Your post prompted me to think about further applications of this study and how emotional context can impact biases in face recognition. Awesome job!

  3. November 18th, 2014 at 17:18 | #3

    I enjoyed reading this post because facial recognition is pretty fascinating to me. Learning about how faces are processed holistically and not analytically, made a lot of sense in my mind. The inversion effect demonstrates how people process faces holistically, because it is shows how when faces are shown upside its harder for us to recognize faces. The Thatcher illusion further emphasizes this because it shows a picture of Maragret Thatcher upside-down , with her main features (eyes, nose, mouth) upside in the photo. When the picture it upside down, it looks a little bit strange to people, but its easy to recognize as a face, because the feature are able to be processed holistically. When this face is turned so that its facing the correct direction, it looks horrible distorted with the eyes, nose, and mouth upside down, something that we did not notice at all when it was upside down. The connection from this post to eyewitness testimony was a good one because eye witness testimony is not very reliable. This study said that people recognize eyes in emotional situations, so maybe when eyewitnesses are asked to describe the face they saw for an artist to create a drawing of the face, the eyewitness should focus more on the eye shape than anything else. I agree with Meg that this study makes a lot of sense because I feel that eyes are incredibly expressive features that make someone easily identifiable. Looking at someones nose in an emotional situation does not make a lot of sense, but looking at their eyes does.

  4. October 11th, 2015 at 19:40 | #4

    Even before I read the blog post itself, I thought it made sense that eyes are considered a big give away in face recognition and recall. We look at people in the eyes for many reasons and we have all heard the saying “the eyes are the gate to one’s soul.” In this paper, the study found that it was easier for research participants to identify the correct eyes than the correct nose from a face the had been exposed to in a line up. Based on what we have studied in class so far, these results make sense within the context of pattern recognition. When processing a stimulus for recognition, we tend to unconsciously focus on the critical features of the stimulus to interpret it. One could argue that the nose is an equally critical feature, however, as humans we are primed to process the eyes and their distinctive features faster than the nose. I talk about priming because throughout our lives we are asked and told to look into other people’s eyes due to the wealth of information it supposedly contains regarding “the truth” about a person. Therefore, we have have much more mental representations about the eyes than the nose, making processing the latter easier.
    However, I do not necessarily agree with the approach the author of the blog used to explain the connection to eyewitness testimony reliability. The face is processed holistically, and focusing on the eyes makes it more difficult to reliably recall a face in a line up. Furthermore, being emotional might actually take up some of the attention available to process the face itself, which could partly explain why the eyes [that we are emotionally attracted to] are processed and recognized faster than nose, which could also explain why people do so poorly in line up pick up.

  5. October 14th, 2015 at 16:34 | #5

    Samantha Boudeau :
    Even before I read the blog post itself, I thought it made sense that eyes are considered a big give away in face recognition and recall. We look at people in the eyes for many reasons and we have all heard the saying “the eyes are the gate to one’s soul.” In this paper, the study found that it was easier for research participants to identify the correct eyes than the correct nose from a face the had been exposed to in a line up. Based on what we have studied in class so far, these results make sense within the context of pattern recognition. When processing a stimulus for recognition, we tend to unconsciously focus on the critical features of the stimulus to interpret it. One could argue that the nose is an equally critical feature, however, as humans we are primed to process the eyes and their distinctive features faster than the nose. I talk about priming because throughout our lives we are asked and told to look into other people’s eyes due to the wealth of information it supposedly contains regarding “the truth” about a person. Therefore, we have have much more mental representations about the eyes than the nose, making processing the latter easier.
    However, I do not necessarily agree with the approach the author of the blog used to explain the connection to eyewitness testimony reliability. The face is processed holistically, and focusing on the eyes makes it more difficult to reliably recall a face in a line up. Furthermore, being emotional might actually take up some of the attention available to process the face itself, which could partly explain why the eyes [that we are emotionally attracted to] are processed and recognized faster than nose, which could also explain why people do so poorly in line up pick up.

  6. October 19th, 2015 at 14:32 | #6

    I really loved the way that you connected your concepts to real life situations that we may encounter on the daily. For instance, when you gave us your insight as to why we may be more focused on the eyes during facial recognition-the fact that a slight squint in the eyes could indicate wincing much like when we are experiencing pain! Then, you connected it to how useful it could be in a highly emotional situation for us to recognize emotions in other’s faces, in order for us to gauge how we should react to somebody else.
    You talked about how we use three key features of people’s faces in order to identify them, and this reminded me of a study we talked about in my Cognitive psychology class in which individuals’ eye movements were tracked when presented with faces (Yarbus, 1967). This study found that most often, the participant fixated for the longest on the eyes, the nose, and the mouth when trying to identify if they had seen the face they were presented with beforehand. However, when comparing the three features against each other, it turned out that the eyes were the most focused on.
    During your description of the varying scenes in which the faces are paired with (negative, positive, or neutral), I was reminded of the two different pathways in the brain that are responsible for facial perception, and these are the dorsal and the ventral pathways. The dorsal pathway processes the “where” information that is available in the environment, such as where the object is and how it contributes to its surroundings. The ventral pathway processes the “what” information about the environment-this part deals with object identification, (telling what the object is itself). When the image of the tape is presented in the background, this is probably processed through the dorsal pathway, because participants are attempting to analyze the spatial relationship between the environment and the face in each image.
    One question that I would have for you is, if there is evidence supporting the idea that we aren’t as good at recognizing faces in a highly emotional context or situation, are there any studies out there that might address or question why this might be so? Also, from a biological standpoint, wouldn’t it be more beneficial for people to have developed better facial recognition in a negative emotional situation rather than a positive one, because the negative context could be perceived as a threat? These are just questions that pop into my mind after reading your post! There are so many different directions that one could go in with this!

  7. Crime Killer
    October 19th, 2015 at 20:29 | #7

    I found this post to be very interesting. When thinking of facial recognition I rarely connect how fast or well one can recognize a face to the emotional state of a person or the situation that they are in. This helped me to bring together in my mind all of the different factors that can affect facial recognition and how much our brain has to work to recognize a face. The context in which the face we see can play a major role as shown in the “Butcher in the Bus” example. We may see a face that we know is familiar, as you touch on in your beginning paragraph, but cannot identify. One reason for this could be the face is in a setting that is unfamiliar and one that we have not placed it in before. Along with this, frequency and recency play a large role in facial recognition as one will recognize someone faster if they have seen them in the last couple of days or have seen them every day for some period of time. Lastly, motivation and drive to recognize a face is important as shown in the Harrison and Hole study in 2009. They found that people who are motivated to recognize a type of face, such as a child’s, recognize these faces better and faster than those who are not motivated. For this reason, teachers were able to recognize a child’s face presented and remembered the face better than those who were not teachers. This was because teachers have the drive to remember their students faces and names on a day to day basis. Context, frequency, accuracy and drive all jump right into my mind when thinking of facial recognition however this post gave me a new idea to ponder.
    I completely understand how one’s emotional state can affect how well they recognize a face. I find myself focusing in on a person’s eyes when they are upset, happy, frustrated or anywhere in between. Although one views another’s face through a holistic system and as a whole entity, the individual features, such as the eyes, clearly play a very important role. The picture included with the various eye shapes really helped to show that even the slightest change in a facial feature could significantly change the whole facial expression. If you inserted each of those eye shapes into the same face, I predict you would get a very different face every time, despite the minute changes. It is clear from the study done that this is very plausible and that the eyes were an important aspect for the subjects in remembering the faces they saw.
    Lastly, like Samantha Boudeau stated in her comment, I question the strength of the link to eyewitness testimony. I understand how the study could play a role in eyewitness testimony however I don’t believe eyewitnesses are ever shown only a nose or only a pair of eyes. Yes, seeing a criminal is an emotional experience and one may play closer attention to the eyes but if they are presented with a line up, they will most likely analyze each face holistically as people standing in a row is not a particularly emotional scene. The focus on a criminals eyes at the scene may aid a witness in identifying the perpetrator which is unfortunate for the criminal, but a witness will generally not only be shown a possible criminals nose. Aside from this point, I really enjoyed this article and learned some very valuable information on facial recognition!

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