Study shows when people feel anxious they are less reliable at reading emotions in other faces

May 31, 2017 by Bob Yirka, Medical Xpress report

Credit: CC0 Public Domain
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers with the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit and the U.K. Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies has found evidence of impaired emotional face reading by people when they are feeling anxious. In their paper published in Royal Society Open Science, the group describes a series of experiments they carried out with different groups of volunteers and what they the found.

Most people know that makes people become more self-centered, but now, it appears we may actually misinterpret what we see when experiencing anxiety. In this new effort, the researchers artificially induced anxiety in groups of volunteers and then tested them on their ability to read , and found that when anxious, people can make mistakes.

In the first experiment, the researchers asked 21 volunteers to look at pictures of people's faces and choose from a list of possible emotions. They were all then asked to don delivering a bit more carbon dioxide to their lungs than is normal. The gas causes people to feel anxious, raises their blood pressure and speeds up the heart rate—just like naturally induced anxiety. The volunteers were then asked to repeat the first experiment. The researchers conducted another similar experiment in which volunteers were shown more faces with more variation in facial expressions. They then repeated both experiments with a whole new group of volunteers. The researchers report that on average, the anxiety-riddled volunteers were 8 percent worse at correctly identifying the emotion expressed on another person's face. They were also more likely to incorrectly see anger in the face of someone expressing happiness.

The researchers also conducted an online study in which participants looked at faces and chose which emotion was depicted—each was also asked to fill out a questionnaire regarding their current anxiety level and their in general. After analyzing results from 1,994 participants, the researchers found that those who reported feeling more anxiety at the time they were taking the study were less accurate than were those with lower or normal levels. Interestingly, they also found that those who reported a history of anxiety were actually better than average at reading emotions in the faces of others.

Explore further: Majority of Americans say they are anxious about health—millennials are more anxious than baby boomers

More information: Angela S. Attwood et al. State anxiety and emotional face recognition in healthy volunteers, Royal Society Open Science (2017). DOI: 10.1098/rsos.160855

High trait anxiety has been associated with detriments in emotional face processing. By contrast, relatively little is known about the effects of state anxiety on emotional face processing. We investigated the effects of state anxiety on recognition of emotional expressions (anger, sadness, surprise, disgust, fear and happiness) experimentally, using the 7.5% carbon dioxide (CO2) model to induce state anxiety, and in a large observational study. The experimental studies indicated reduced global (rather than emotion-specific) emotion recognition accuracy and increased interpretation bias (a tendency to perceive anger over happiness) when state anxiety was heightened. The observational study confirmed that higher state anxiety is associated with poorer emotion recognition, and indicated that negative effects of trait anxiety are negated when controlling for state anxiety, suggesting a mediating effect of state anxiety. These findings may have implications for anxiety disorders, which are characterized by increased frequency, intensity or duration of state anxious episodes.

Related Stories

Majority of Americans say they are anxious about health—millennials are more anxious than baby boomers

May 23, 2017
Nearly two-thirds of Americans are extremely or somewhat anxious about health and safety for themselves and their families and more than a third are more anxious overall than last year. By generation, millennials are the ...

Being anxious could be good for you—in a crisis

December 29, 2015
New findings by French researchers show that the brain devotes more processing resources to social situations that signal threat than those that are benign.

Researchers find a brain link between affective understanding and interpersonal attraction

April 5, 2016
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers with members from a large number of institutions in Germany has conducted a study that has revealed more about the way interpersonal attraction works in the brain. In their paper published ...

Study shows attractiveness of people not dependent on facial expression

March 12, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Researchers from the U.K.'s University of Portsmouth have conducted a study with the aim of attempting to discern if the attractiveness of a person's face is impacted by facial expression. In their paper ...

Researchers identify facial expression for anxiety

January 16, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King's College London have, for the first time, identified the facial expression of anxiety. The facial expression for the emotion of anxiety comprises ...

Anxiety increases error, but not bias, in facial recognition

November 20, 2015
While people in a state of anxiety make more mistakes trying to recognise faces, they don't show an increased ethnic bias, according to research which debunks a commonly-held belief.

Recommended for you

Suicide risk in abused teen girls linked to mother-daughter conflict

October 18, 2018
Teenage girls who were maltreated as children are more likely to entertain suicidal thoughts if the relationship with their mother is poor and the degree of conflict between the two of them high.

Study shows how bias can influence people estimating the ages of other people

October 17, 2018
A trio of researchers from the University of New South Wales and Western Sydney University has discovered some of the factors involved when people make errors in estimating the ages of other people. In their paper published ...

Infants are more likely to learn when with a peer

October 16, 2018
Infants are more likely to learn from on-screen instruction when paired with another infant as opposed to viewing the lesson alone, according to a new study.

Researchers use brain cells in a dish to study genetic origins of schizophrenia

October 16, 2018
A study in Biological Psychiatry has established a new analytical method for investigating the complex genetic origins of mental illnesses using brain cells that are grown in a dish from human embryonic stem cells. Researchers ...

Income and wealth affect the mental health of Australians, study shows

October 16, 2018
Australians who have higher incomes and greater wealth are more likely to experience better mental health throughout their lives, new research led by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre has found.

Study suggests biological basis for depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances in older adults

October 15, 2018
UC San Francisco researchers, in collaboration with the unique Brazilian Biobank for Aging Studies (BBAS) at the University of São Paulo, have shown that the earliest stages of the brain degeneration associated with Alzheimer's ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.