Emotion is perceived accurately from isolated body parts, especially hands

Cognition. 2023 Jan:230:105260. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2022.105260. Epub 2022 Sep 1.


Body posture and configuration provide important visual cues about the emotion states of other people. We know that bodily form is processed holistically, however, emotion recognition may depend on different mechanisms; certain body parts, such as the hands, may be especially important for perceiving emotion. This study therefore compared participants' emotion recognition performance when shown images of full bodies, or of isolated hands, arms, heads and torsos. Across three experiments, emotion recognition accuracy was above chance for all body parts. While emotions were recognized most accurately from full bodies, recognition performance from the hands was more accurate than for other body parts. Representational similarity analysis further showed that the pattern of errors for the hands was related to that for full bodies. Performance was reduced when stimuli were inverted, showing a clear body inversion effect. The high performance for hands was not due only to the fact that there are two hands, as performance remained well above chance even when just one hand was shown. These results demonstrate that emotions can be decoded from body parts. Furthermore, certain features, such as the hands, are more important to emotion perception than others. STATEMENT OF RELEVANCE: Successful social interaction relies on accurately perceiving emotional information from others. Bodies provide an abundance of emotion cues; however, the way in which emotional bodies and body parts are perceived is unclear. We investigated this perceptual process by comparing emotion recognition for body parts with that for full bodies. Crucially, we found that while emotions were most accurately recognized from full bodies, emotions were also classified accurately when images of isolated hands, arms, heads and torsos were seen. Of the body parts shown, emotion recognition from the hands was most accurate. Furthermore, shared patterns of emotion classification for hands and full bodies suggested that emotion recognition mechanisms are shared for full bodies and body parts. That the hands are key to emotion perception is important evidence in its own right. It could also be applied to interventions for individuals who find it difficult to read emotions from faces and bodies.

Keywords: Bodies; Body perception; Emotion recognition; Hands.

MeSH terms

  • Cues
  • Emotions*
  • Facial Expression
  • Hand
  • Human Body*
  • Humans
  • Recognition, Psychology