A matter of confidence

We have been constantly exposed to the facial expressions of the people around us, expression that reflect their feelings. But do we translate them correctly? And do we trust our own judgment? This trust is essential for avoiding misconceptions or even potentially dangerous situations. That is the reason why researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and University Private hospitals of Geneva (HUG), Swiss, have been testing how confident we feel when judging other’s emotions, and what areas of the mind are used. These results — which you can read all about in the journal Social, Intellectual and Affective Neuroscience — demonstrate that beliefs in our own emotional interpretation originate directly from the activities kept in our memory. Within other words, our past life influences our interpretations… and sometimes leads us astray.

Our daily decisions come with a degree of confidence, yet confidence doesn’t always go hand in hand with decision’s accuracy. We are sometimes incorrect even when we have been completely confident in having used the right decision — as, for instance, when making a poor investment on the stock market. The same applies to our social interactions: we have been constantly interpreting the expressions on the faces of these around us, and the idea we have in our own interpretations is paramount. “Take the situation of Trayvon Matn in america, which is a perfect illustration of the, inch suggests Indrit B├Ęgue, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Psychiatry in UNIGE’s Faculty of drugs and a doctor in the Adult Psychiatry Service in the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health at HUG. “Trayvon was a 17-year-old African-American teenager who was shot dead by George Zimmerman, despite being unarmed. Zimmerman thought the young boy “looked dubious, ” an altercation out of cash out with the deadly outcome that we’re all familiar with. ” Yet why was Zimmerman so sure that Martin “looked suspicious” and thus, was dangerous, when all this individual was actually doing was waiting in front of his father’s house? It really is in an attempt to answer this type of question that the UNIGE and HUG researchers were so keen to test the amount of confidence we have in our interpretations of the emotional behaviour of others, also to discover which areas of the brain are activated during these interpretations.

Emotion recognition: overconfidently wrong

The scientists made the decision to measure confidence-related behavior by asking 34 individuals to judge emotional encounters displaying a mix of happy and angry feelings, with each face being framed by two horizontally bars of varying width. Some of the encounters were very plainly happy or angry, while others were highly ambiguous. The particular participants first had to define what emotion was represented on each of the 128 faces that flashed up. They, then, had to choose which of the two pubs was thicker. Finally, for each decision they made, individuals had to indicate their level of confidence in their choice on a scale ranging from one (not whatsoever sure) to 6 (certain). “The pubs were used to judge their confidence in visual belief, which has already already been studied in depth. Here it served as a control mechanism, ” says Patrik Vuilleumier, a professor in UNIGE’s Department of fundamental neurosciences.

The results of the tests surprised the researchers, to say the least. “Strikingly, the average level of confidence in emotional recognition was higher (5. 88 points) than for visual perception (4. 95 points), even though participants made more errors in emotional recognition (79 % correct answers) than with the lines (82% correct answers)! ” says Indrit.

In fact, learning emotional recognition is not as easy as for perception: our interlocutors may be ironic, lying or prevented from expressing their facial emotions due to social conventions — if their boss is present, for instance. It follows that it is more difficult to correctly calibrate our confidence in recognising other people’s emotions in the absence of any feedback. In addition, we have to interpret an expression very quickly because it is fleeting. So, we feel that our first impression is the right one, and trust our judgment about an angry face or mouth. On the other hand, judging perception may be more attentive and benefits from direct feedback about its accuracy. If there is hesitation, confidence is lower than for emotions, because we know that we can easily be wrong and be contradicted.

Confidence based on memory

As for the brain correlates, the UNIGE and HUG researchers examined the neural mechanisms during this process of confidence on one’s emotional recognition by providing participants with a functional MRI. “When the participants judged the lines, the perception (visual areas) and attention (frontal areas) zones were activated. But when assessing confidence in recognising emotions, areas linked to autobiographical and in-text memory lit up, like the parahippocampal gyrus and the retrosplenial/posterior cingulate cortex, inch points out professor Vuilleumier. This demonstrates that brain systems storing personal and contextual memories are straight involved with beliefs on psychological recognition, and that they determine the accuracy of the interpretation of face expressions and the trust put in them. “The fact that past activities are extremely fundamental to control our confidence may cause problems within our day-to-day life, because they can alter our judgment, as occurred in the Trayvon Matn case, when Zimmerman did not see an impatient young man waiting outside his home, but an upset black man lurking before a house, ” describes Indrit. “That’s why it can vital to give feedback about our feelings early on, so we can show children to interpret them properly. “

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