Interpret the Emotions of Others, a Matter of Trust

Interpreting the emotions of others is fundamental to our social performance. This interpretation depends to a great extent on how we give meaning to the facial expressions of others.


Do we know how to interpret others’ emotions correctly? Every day, we see dozens or even hundreds of facial expressions in other people. These expressions make us react in one way or another depending on how we interpret these expressions.

But do we really interpret the facial expressions of others correctly? To what extent do we trust our own judgment to trust others? To what extent does our confidence in the recognition of the expression of emotion depend on perceptual information or other non-perceptual information?

“There is no doubt that this trust is essential to avoid potentially dangerous situations. However, on many occasions appearances deceive, for good and for bad.”

A team from the University of Geneva, Switzerland, has tested to what extent we are confident in judging the emotions of other people and what areas of the brain are activated in this process. Their results show that the beliefs of our own emotional interpretation come directly from the experiences stored in our memory, and that this experience sometimes confuses us – the past is not a perfect predictor of the future. The results of the study were published at the end of December 2018 in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Interpret the emotions of others

Every day we take dozens, hundreds of decisions. All of them imply a certain degree of trust in someone or something. However, such trust does not always honor the decision made. Sometimes we are wrong, even when we are totally sure that we have made the right decision. That happens in all aspects of our life.

When it comes to social interactions, we are constantly interpreting the expressions on the faces of those around us. In this sense, being aware of subjectivity is paramount when it comes to interpreting the emotions of others. In this sense, the researchers were interested in testing the level of confidence we have in our interpretations regarding the emotional behavior of others and in discovering which areas of the brain are activated during these interpretations.

The scientists decided to measure the behavior related to trust, asking 34 participants to judge several faces that showed a mixture of positive and negative emotions. Each face was framed by two horizontal bars of different thicknesses. Some of the faces appeared with clear faces of joy or anger, while others were very ambiguous.

The participants first had to define what emotion was represented on each of the 128 faces. Then, the participants had to choose which of the two bars was thickest. Finally, for each decision they made, they had to indicate their level of confidence in their choice on a scale ranging from 1 (not very sure) to 6 (true). The bars were used to assess their confidence in visual perception, which this case served as a control mechanism.

The results of the tests surprised the researchers. According to the researchers, the average level of confidence in emotional recognition was greater than in visual perception, although participants made more errors in emotional recognition than with lines.

In fact, they explain, learning emotional recognition is not as easy as perceptual judgment. The interlocutors can be ironic, lie or avoid expressing their facial emotions due to social conventions. From this it follows that it is more difficult to correctly gauge our confidence by recognizing the emotions of other people in the absence of any comments.

Also, we have to interpret an expression very quickly, since it is fleeting. Therefore, we feel that our first impression is correct, and we trust our judgment on a face of anger. On the other hand, judging perception is a longer process and is sensitive to direct comments about its accuracy. If there is doubt, trust is less than for emotions, because we are aware of our fallibility.

Our memory influences trust

The researchers, using functional magnetic resonance, examined the neuronal mechanisms during this process of confidence in the emotional knowledge. They explain that when the participants judged the lines, the perception (visual areas) and attention areas (frontal areas) were activated.

However, when assessing confidence in the recognition of emotions, areas related to autobiographical and contextual memory, such as the parahipocampal and the cingulate turn, became illuminated.

This shows that brain systems that store personal and contextual memories are directly involved in beliefs about emotional recognition, and that they determine the accuracy of the interpretation of facial expressions and the trust placed in this interpretation, the researchers explain.