What Emotion Facial Expressions Tell Us About the Health of Others

Shlomo Hareli, Or David, Ursula Hess

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


To avoid contagion, we need information about the health status of those whom we engage with. This is especially important when we have cause for concern that the other is indeed sick, such as is the case during the world-wide outbreak of the coronavirus in 2020. In three studies, one conducted several years before the pandemic, and two during the pandemic, we showed that facial expressions of emotions are used as signals of health status. Specifically, happy expressers are perceived as healthier than expressers showing negative emotions or neutrality (Studies 1–3), whereas anger was interpreted as a signal of ill health (Study 3). Importantly, however, facial expressions affected health perception only when there was a prior reason to suspect ill health. This was the case for older expressers before and after the pandemic for whom age-related stereotypes set expectations of ill health and for all ages during a wide-spread pandemic, which extends this suspicion to everyone. In Study 3, we showed that the effect of emotion expressions was also generalized to the physical distance that the observer wishes to keep from the expresser. Overall, this research is the first to show a role of emotion expressions in informing health perception.

Original languageEnglish
Article number585242
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
StatePublished - 13 Nov 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Copyright © 2020 Hareli, David and Hess.


  • COVID-19
  • age stereotypes
  • emotions
  • facial expressions
  • health perception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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