“If you think they look angry then you may respond angrily,” said Abigail Marsh, the director of the Laboratory on Social and Affective Neuroscience at Georgetown University.
What interested Dr. Schermerhorn was whether an even more common issue — conflict between parents — might also take a toll.
She tested this by gathering 99 children, ages nine to 11, who lived in households with their two married biological parents. After the children completed a questionnaire with statements such as, “My parents get really mad when they argue,” she tested their ability to gauge emotions in a series of photos:
Her original hypothesis was that children with higher interparental conflict scores would be worse at reading happy, angry and neutral faces. What she found instead was that children in high-conflict households fared just as well as the other children in discerning happy and angry expressions.
“They just couldn’t identify neutral accurately,” she said.
The study has limitations: The children were reacting to posed photos of the same youthful white actors.. In real life, of course, faces are moving — something that limits the applications of numerous studies in this area. The children also misread neutral as happy about as often as they misread it as angry, which is different from some other studies in this area. And it’s possible that they will grow out of the tendency as they age, she acknowledged.
Still the findings support a point other researchers in this field sometimes make: Those most in need of a benign interaction often have the hardest time recognizing one.
A parallel phenomenon has been shown to sabotage people suffering from depression and anxiety.
“People with anxiety disorders are likely to see fear when it’s absent,” and to “misclassify neutral expressions as angry, fearful, or just generally negative,” said Dr. Marsh, the Georgetown professor, who recently published a book called “The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between.”
Depression, similarly, has been found to function almost like distortion goggles, filtering out signs of joy and happiness while magnifying signs of sadness or anger.
The good news is that there is some evidence that people can learn to see ambiguity in a more positive light.
Melissa Brotman, a clinical neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health who develops treatments to help chronically irritable children, has found that they have a tendency to “perceive neutral or ambiguous faces as more hostile and fear-producing than typically developing youth.” But after a week of training with a computerized feedback tool in a small early pilot study, not only did the children stop seeing so much hostility in ambiguous faces, parents and clinicians noticed that their moods improved considerably.
So what do you do if you’re an adult who often thinks friends and colleagues are upset with you? Dr. Schermerhorn advised trying to remember that just because a face is not brimming with positivity, it does not mean that it is conveying something negative. Also remember that what you’re picking up on might just be a person’s eyebrows. Low brows and brows that slope in like a V have a tendency to telegraph anger, researchers have found, even when none is present.