Mixed emotions: Sensitivity to facial variance in a crowd of faces

J Vis. 2015;15(4):16. doi: 10.1167/15.4.16.


The visual system automatically represents summary information from crowds of faces, such as the average expression. This is a useful heuristic insofar as it provides critical information about the state of the world, not simply information about the state of one individual. However, the average alone is not sufficient for making decisions about how to respond to a crowd. The variance or heterogeneity of the crowd--the mixture of emotions--conveys information about the reliability of the average, essential for determining whether the average can be trusted. Despite its importance, the representation of variance within a crowd of faces has yet to be examined. This is addressed here in three experiments. In the first experiment, observers viewed a sample set of faces that varied in emotion, and then adjusted a subsequent set to match the variance of the sample set. To isolate variance as the summary statistic of interest, the average emotion of both sets was random. Results suggested that observers had information regarding crowd variance. The second experiment verified that this was indeed a uniquely high-level phenomenon, as observers were unable to derive the variance of an inverted set of faces as precisely as an upright set of faces. The third experiment replicated and extended the first two experiments using method-of-constant-stimuli. Together, these results show that the visual system is sensitive to emergent information about the emotional heterogeneity, or ambivalence, in crowds of faces.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Crowding
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Facial Recognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Young Adult