Perceiving Happiness in an Intergroup Context: The Role of Race and Attention to the Eyes in Differentiating Between True and False Smiles

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2019 Mar;116(3):375-395. doi: 10.1037/pspa0000139. Epub 2019 Jan 7.


The present research comprises six experiments that investigated racial biases in the perception of positive emotional expressions. In an initial study, we demonstrated that White participants distinguished more in their happiness ratings of Duchenne ("true") and non-Duchenne ("false") smiles on White compared with Black faces (Experiment 1). In a subsequent study we replicated this effect using a different set of stimuli and non-Black participants (Experiment 2). As predicted, this bias was not demonstrated by Black participants, who did not significantly differ in happiness ratings between smile types on White and Black faces (Experiment 3). Furthermore, in addition to happiness ratings, we demonstrated that non-Black participants were also more accurate when categorizing true versus false expressions on White compared with Black faces (Experiment 4). The final two studies provided evidence for the mediating role of attention to the eyes in intergroup emotion identification. In particular, eye tracking data indicated that White participants spent more time attending to the eyes of White than Black faces and that attention to the eyes predicted biases in happiness ratings between true and false smiles on White and Black faces (Experiment 5). Furthermore, an experimental manipulation focusing participants on the eyes of targets eliminated the effects of target race or perceptions of happiness (Experiment 6). Together, the findings provide novel evidence for racial biases in the identification of positive emotions and highlight the critical role of visual attention in this process. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved).

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • African Continental Ancestry Group / psychology
  • Continental Population Groups / psychology*
  • European Continental Ancestry Group / psychology
  • Facial Expression*
  • Facial Recognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Happiness*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Smiling / psychology*
  • Social Perception*
  • Young Adult