Of cats and basketball players – how we’re better at recognising the emotions of those we identify with

Just as we’re better at recognising people who share our ethnicity, we are also better at interpreting the emotional facial expressions of people from the same ethnic, national, or regional group as ourselves. Pascal Thibault and colleagues at the University of Quebec at Montreal think this has to do with motivation. We identify more with people in the same group as us – that in turn leads us to be more motivated to imagine things from their perspective, thus aiding our ability to interpret their emotions.

To test this idea, they showed 88 participants video stills (see examples above and below) of cats that were showing either aggression, fear, disgust or interest. Regardless of how much experience they had of cats, the participants who said they identified closely with cats were better able to recognise whether the felines were showing fear, disgust or interest.

In a second experiment, 60 participants were asked to interpret the facial expressions of men who were randomly labelled either as basketball players or non-players. For half the participants, the labels were switched, to be sure the crucial factor was how the faces were labelled rather than how they looked. Remarkably, participants who played basketball themselves were better than non-players at recognising the emotional expressions of the men labelled as players. Simply being told that another person was a fellow basketball player enhanced their ability to interpret that person’s emotions.

According to the researchers, the findings suggest motivation plays a big part in our ability to understand other people’s emotions, with practical implications: “…[T]he misunderstanding that sometimes occurs between members of different ethnic groups could be explained in part by the lack of motivation that members of a given group display when trying to decode the emotions of members of the other group”, they said.

Thibault, P., Bourgeois, P. & Hess, U. (2006). The effect of group-identification on emotion recognition: The case of cats and basketball players. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 676-683.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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