What a smile means: contextual beliefs and facial emotion expressions in a non-verbal zero-sum game
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Research into the authenticity of facial emotion expressions often focuses on the physical properties of the face while paying little attention to the role of beliefs in emotion perception. Further, the literature most often investigates how people express a predetermined emotion rather than what facial emotion expressions people strategically choose to express. To fill these gaps, this paper proposes a non-verbal zero-sum game the Face X Game to assess the role of contextual beliefs and strategic displays of facial emotion expression in interpersonal interactions. This new research paradigm was used in a series of three studies, where two participants are asked to play the role of the sender (individual expressing emotional information on his/her face) or the observer (individual interpreting the meaning of that expression). Study 1 examines the outcome of the game with reference to the sex of the pair, where senders won more frequently when the pair was comprised of at least one female. Study 2 examines the strategic display of facial emotion expressions. The outcome of the game was again contingent upon the sex of the pair. Among female pairs, senders won the game more frequently, replicating the pattern of results from study 1. We also demonstrate that senders who strategically express an emotion incongruent with the valence of the event (e.g., smile after seeing a negative event) are able to mislead observers, who tend to hold a congruent belief about the meaning of the emotion expression. If sending an incongruent signal helps to explain why female senders win more frequently, it logically follows that female observers were more prone to hold a congruent, and therefore inaccurate, belief. This prospect implies that while female senders are willing and/or capable of displaying fake smiles, paired-female observers are not taking this into account. Study 3 investigates the role of contextual factors by manipulating female observers' beliefs. When prompted to think in an incongruent manner, these observers significantly improve their performance in the game. These findings emphasize the role that contextual factors play in emotion perception observers' beliefs do indeed affect their judgments of facial emotion expressions.