Home > Memory > Is it just me or is that athlete really aggressive looking?: The importance of context in the memory of faces

Is it just me or is that athlete really aggressive looking?: The importance of context in the memory of faces

Remember back in high school, the last basketball game of the season against your biggest rival? You were guarding the best player on the other team, let’s call her Chelsey. The teams were going back and forth in points. As the seconds ticked off the clock the game picked up in intensity. There was a lot of pushing and shoving that was going unnoticed by the refs. You personally were being elbowed and pushed out of the box by Chelsey. The look on her face was pure determination and aggression; a desire to win the competition. Unfortunately, your team lost, and it was a long bus ride home. During it, all you and your teammates could talk about were the other players and how aggressive they looked.

Later, you see Chelsey again at the All-star game. This time, the two of you are on the same team. You play alongside Chelsey for the entire game, feeding her passes and rebounding her misses, working as a real team. After the game, you hear someone from the other team talking about how aggressive looking Chelsey was. This makes you think back to how you remembered Chelsey’s face as aggressive as well. But thinking back to the playing in the All-star game you don’t remember Chelsey as having an aggressive face.

Why did the way you remember Chelsey’s face change? The answer is context. This is a perfect example of how important context is for memory. When interpreting a stimulus in the world, say a face, you use both top-down and bottom-up processing. Top-down processing is when you use your prior knowledge and expectations to interpret the stimulus. Bottom-up processing is when you use the basic features of the stimulus to interpret it. So to interpret a face you look at the features themselves (bottom-up processing) and use the context or situation you are in and your expectations for that scenario (top-down processing) to understand and make sense of the face. An example of how this relates to memory is the butcher on the bus scenario (Mandler, 1980). In this example, a man gets on a bus and sees a man he recognizes. But no matter how much he tries, he can’t remember how he knows this man or where they met. Later, when he goes to the butcher shop, he sees the man from the bus, but this time behind the counter. That is when he makes the connection that the man is his local butcher. This shows that context helps us make connections in the world using our top-down processing.

So how does this relate to Chelsey’s face? Research shows that the context in which you observed a person will determine how you remember his or her face. Balas and Thomas (2015) found that people in a competitive setting remembered faces as being more aggressive than people who were in a cooperative setting. An aggressive or angry face is characterized by eyebrow lowering and lip raising which creates a face with a higher width-to-height ratio (WHR). The higher the WHR value, the more aggressive a face is perceived.  For example, in the photo below, the face on the left has a lower WHR and would be perceived as less aggressive than the face on the right:

In their study, the researchers had participants play a game either in a competitive condition (against a confederate) or in a cooperative condition (playing with the confederate) in the presence of a referee confederate. The game consisted of throwing a ball at a target with different point values on it. In the competitive condition, the participant and player confederate took turns throwing balls at the target with the winner being the first person to reach 1,000 points. In the cooperative condition, the participant and player confederate took turns throwing balls until together they reached 2,000 points. After the game, the participants were asked to recreate the faces of both confederates using pictures of their individual features. The participants in the cooperative condition recreated faces with lower WHRs than the participants in the competitive condition for both confederates.

When you played against Chelsey, you were in a competitive situation. The context was competitive, and your prior knowledge told you that aggression and competition are related. This caused you to remember her face as being more aggressive than when you were her teammate. In that situation you worked cooperatively and your prior knowledge told you that friendly and helpful are associated with cooperative to guide your memory of her face as unaggressive.

So what does this all mean? It means that the context in which you see someone is crucial for how you will later remember them. So, if you happen to play against any of these athletes you may remember them like this:




But if you see them in a context that is not competitive, you may remember them like this:



Not only that, but it shows how important top-down processing is for our memory. It is not just important for how we remember faces, but everything in our world. Prior knowledge really impacts how we interpret and then remember a situation. It also shows us that memory is context dependent, that is, the correct context helps us remember things. When placed in the right context, it is much easier to remember something that when in the wrong context (remember the butcher on the bus). So the next time you are trying to recall something, the closer to the appropriate context you get, the easier it will be to remember it.


To read more about face recognition in emotional situations, check out this blog post



Balas, B., & Thomas, L.E. (2015). Competition makes observers remember faces as more aggressive. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144, 711-716.

Mandler, G. (1980). Recognizing: The judgment of previous occurrence. Psychological Review, 87, 252–271.


Images (in the order they appear)





On the Pujols Matter – I’m With the Cardinals

HOPE SOLO at 2015 Espys Awards in Los Angeles




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  1. December 10th, 2015 at 01:39 | #1

    This post got me thinking more about top-down processing. You talk about top-down processing coming into this situation and telling the basketball player that competition and aggressiveness are related, thereby causing the player to perceive Chelsey’s face as more aggressive. I was thinking about other ways in which top-down processing could have an effect. What if Chelsey used to go to your school and was really nice and generous. If she then transferred to another school and you played against her would this prior knowledge you had about her make you perceive her as less aggressive than someone you did not have this top-down information about?

    The pictures at the end of your post got me thinking about this effect when you are just a spectator. I’m a big Bruins fan so when I watch a Bruins versus Canadiens game do I perceive P.K. Subban’s (Canadiens’ player) as more aggressive looking than Patrice Bergeron’s (Bruins player)? What about when these players join together for the Olympics–do I see Subban as less aggressive because him and my favorite player, Bergeron, are playing together? Do I see Bergeron as more aggressive when he is in his Canada Olympic jersey than his Bruins once because I don’t support the Canadian Olympic team but do support the Bruins? What about Patrick Kane, a star player for the Chicago Blackhawks–do I see him as less aggressive when he is playing for the USA Olympic team than when he is playing for the Blackhawks?

    The general theme of this post also got me thinking about aggressiveness and faces more generally and how this may play into situations like eyewitness testimonies. It would make sense given your post and because our prior knowledge tells us that crimes and aggressiveness are linked that eyewitnesses would perceive who they thought was the criminal as aggressive, which may help confirm to them that who they accused was actually the criminal.

    Finally, this post got me thinking about retrospective bias, one of the seven sins of memory. Retrospective bias can help us feel about things in our past. For example, after a breakup we may only imagine the bad times with our ex to make the breakup more manageable. After sports games you commonly hear the losing team talking about how dirty the other team played. Is retroactive bias used to make us feel better about a lost competition? Do people perceive competitors as more aggressive after they have lost to them so that they can blame the loss on the excessive aggressiveness of the other player?

  2. December 2nd, 2015 at 16:25 | #2

    I enjoyed reading this post for three reasons. First, it clear and easy to follow. Second, I loved the story that you created around the evil Chelsey to physically put the reader in the situation and make it more relatable (and, of course, the pictures at the end-not bad!). Third, I love reading posts about context because I recently wrote one on context and how that affects memory myself!

    The study that I wrote my post about: Negative affect impairs associative memory, (Bisby & Burgess, 2013), involved negative affect and context as well! In this particular experiment, participants had to first encode 40 neutral and 40 negative images that were presented to them on a computer screen. Then, they viewed four varying background scenes that were presented one after the other, (producing the context). Then, an image-context phase ensued, and the images that participants had previously encoded appeared on the screen over one of the four background images. One day later, participants were given a surprise memory test of the image-context combinations that they previously saw. The surprise memory test contained item images that the participants had never seen before, mixed in with images that they had encoded during the first phase of the experiment. Individuals had to first identify if the item imaged flashed before them was new (one they had never seen before), or old (one they had seen during the first phase of encoding). If the item image was identified as old, the four varying background scenes flashed on the next screen, and the participant had to match the item image with the background scene it was presented with in the first place.

    Results from this study showed that when a negative item image was presented to the person, negative emotion had no debilitating effect on item memory. Participants actually recognized negative item images better than they recognized neutral ones. However, when context was added to the mix, this changed things. In relation to negative affect, participants showed deficits in associative memory (when they tried to match the negative item images with their correct backgrounds). People were better at matching the neutral item images with their background scenes!

    I was thinking about how the notion of the perception of negative emotion and context could relate between these two studies. I wonder if these two studies could be morphed together in some way! In your example, we could think of Chelsey as the negative item image (a picture of her shooting a 3 pointer). What do you think would happen if we paired the same image of Chelsey over different contexts? One context could be considered neutral, while the other context could depict a competitive setting. Maybe something like a desert background for the neutral context, and a basketball game for the competitive context could work? If participants are later asked how aggressive Chelsey seemed in either of the contexts, would she be perceived as more aggressive if she’s projected over the competitive background, or the neutral background? What if we took a neutral photograph of Chelsey and projected her over both backgrounds? How would this turn out? It would be interesting to find out!

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