Identification of emotional facial expressions: Effects of expression, intensity, and sex on eye gaze

Laura Jean Wells, Steven Mark Gillespie, Pia Rotshtein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The identification of emotional expressions is vital for social interaction, and can be affected by various factors, including the expressed emotion, the intensity of the expression, the sex of the face, and the gender of the observer. This study investigates how these factors affect the speed and accuracy of expression recognition, as well as dwell time on the two most significant areas of the face: the eyes and the mouth. Participants were asked to identify expressions from female and male faces displaying six expressions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise), each with three levels of intensity (low, moderate, and normal). Overall, responses were fastest and most accurate for happy expressions, but slowest and least accurate for fearful expressions. More intense expressions were also classified most accurately. Reaction time showed a different pattern, with slowest response times recorded for expressions of moderate intensity. Overall, responses were slowest, but also most accurate, for female faces. Relative to male observers, women showed greater accuracy and speed when recognizing female expressions. Dwell time analyses revealed that attention to the eyes was about three times greater than on the mouth, with fearful eyes in particular attracting longer dwell times. The mouth region was attended to the most for fearful, angry, and disgusted expressions and least for surprise. These results extend upon previous findings to show important effects of expression, emotion intensity, and sex on expression recognition and gaze behaviour, and may have implications for understanding the ways in which emotion recognition abilities break down.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0168307
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2016
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 Wells et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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