Believing is seeing too, especially of others' emotions | world | Hindustan Times
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Believing is seeing too, especially of others' emotions

Folk wisdom says "seeing is believing", but new research suggests that "believing is seeing" too, at least when it comes to perceiving other people's emotions.

world Updated: Sep 03, 2009 16:49 IST

Folk wisdom says "seeing is believing", but new research suggests that "believing is seeing" too, at least when it comes to perceiving other people's emotions.

A team of psychologists from the US, New Zealand and France has found that the way we initially think about the emotions of others biases our subsequent perception (and memory) of their facial expressions.

So once we interpret an ambiguous or neutral look as angry or happy, we later remember and actually see it as such.

The study addresses the age-old question: Do we see reality as it is, or is what we see influenced by our preconceptions? said study co-author Piotr Winkielman, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).

"Our findings indicate that what we think has a noticeable effect on our perceptions."

"We imagine our emotional expressions as unambiguous ways of communicating how we're feeling," said co-author Jamin Halberstadt, University of Otago in New Zealand, "but in real social interactions, facial expressions are blends of multiple emotions - they are open to interpretation."

"This means that two people can have different recollections about the same emotional episode, yet both be correct about what they 'saw'.

"So when my wife remembers my smirk as cynicism, she is right: her explanation of the expression at the time biased her perception of it. But it is also true that, had she explained my expression as empathy, I wouldn't be sleeping on the couch," said Halberstadt.

"It's a paradox," Halberstadt added. "The more we seek meaning in other emotions, the less accurate we are in remembering them."

The researchers point out that implications of the results go beyond everyday interpersonal misunderstandings - especially for those who have persistent or dysfunctional ways of understanding emotions, such as socially anxious or traumatised individuals.

For example, the socially anxious have negative interpretations of others' reactions that may permanently colour their perceptions of feelings and intentions, perpetuating their erroneous beliefs even in the face of evidence to the contrary, said an UCSD release.

These findings were published in the September issue of Psychological Science.