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Lisa Feldman Barrett, "Hillary Clinton's 'Angry' Face", NYT 9/23/2016:

When Hillary Clinton participated in a televised forum on national security and military issues this month, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, tweeted that she was “angry and defensive the entire time — no smile and uncomfortable.” Mrs. Clinton, evidently undaunted by Mr. Priebus’s opinion on when she should and shouldn’t smile, tweeted back, “Actually, that’s just what taking the office of president seriously looks like.”

The implication of Mr. Priebus’s comment was a familiar one: A woman making stern-looking facial movements must be angry or upset. A man who looks the same, on the other hand, is focusing on the important matters at hand.

Prof. Barrett, who is co-director of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory at Northeastern, cites a paper from her lab that demonstrates differences in the perceptual attribution of dispositional vs. situational reasons for emotions expressed by men and women — "She’s emotional. He’s having a bad day: Attributional explanations for emotion stereotypes", Emotion 2009:

People believe that women are the more emotional sex. This belief stems less from what men and women actually do than from the explanations given for their behaviors. In 2 studies, participants who were given situational information about the causes of emotional expression in target faces nonetheless more frequently judged feminine targets depicting emotions as “emotional” (i.e., a dispositional attribution for the emotional behavior), whereas they more frequently judged masculine targets as “having a bad day” (i.e., a situational attribution for the emotional behavior). These findings help explain the pervasive belief that women are more emotional when compared with men, even when the scientific veracity of this belief is questionable.

But her NYT Sunday Review piece focuses not on the perception of the reason for the emotion (disposition vs. situation) but on the emotion itself (anger vs. serious attention). That double standard also does seem to exist, though I don't know whether there's supporting research. In any case, this all naturally raises the question of how theories of  emotion perception or emotion attribution apply to Mike Pence:

That seems exactly correct, although "about to introduce legislation to outlaw the X-Men" is unfortunately not one of the categories of emotion attribution (whether of situation or of disposition) likely to be used in a peer-reviewable research paper.

Update — Smiles are also subject to variable interpretation:

Update #2 — Anna Waters, "How could sexism hurt Clinton in the debates? These female high school debaters know", Washington Post 9/23/2016.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 3:52 pm

    "about to introduce legislation to outlaw the X-Men" = RAF?

  2. Guy said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 4:26 pm

    In Mike Pence's case, at least in that photo, I think the shadows his brows are casting over his eyes are at least as responsible for the perception as the line of his mouth.

  3. Pat Barrett said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 4:35 pm

    We have also discussed similar perceptual double standards for African-Americans. Thomas Kochman's 70s book Black and White Styles in Conflict makes similar comparisons e.g he's talking real loud so he must be angry.

  4. Chris Cooper said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 6:00 pm

    A sentence in the Barrett and Bliss-Moreau paper struck me:

    "*Regardless of whether women are objectively more emotionally expressive,* people attribute their emotional behaviors to a more emotional nature, whereas this happens less for expressions made by men." (p 655)

    This is a very fair-minded reminder that a laboratory experiment with computer-generated images doesn't speak to whether the differences in attributions are derived from life experience with real faces.

  5. Viseguy said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 8:20 pm

    Although, according to the Social Security website, I have another 19 years to live, I would gladly off myself tonight rather than publicly assume the facial expressions exhibited by Fiorina and Cruz.

    How people with political ambitions live with themselves, I'll never know. And yet…

    Nec tecum, nec sine te….

  6. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 24, 2016 @ 8:41 pm

    An explanation of "RBF" from the latest OED update, should anyone need it.

  7. JPL said,

    September 25, 2016 @ 1:13 am

    I gotta say, I love that face of Hillary's up there; that's a big plus for me! She looks beautiful, and in other pictures where she's looking serious she also looks more beautiful. She should forget about pleasing the conventional males out there and view other mortals with the contempt they deserve. (Full disclosure: I was supporting Bernie.) (BTW, I don't see Hillary's face as expressing (or revealing) anger at all; it looks like she has sized up the situation and she has everything under control. Priebus, Pence (the DA), the other two: I see nothing but emptiness, and I mean intellectual emptiness, behind the visage.) (And for anyone who wants to complain about that last bit, show me even a single example where they have demonstrated anything counter to that.)

  8. JPL said,

    September 25, 2016 @ 5:53 am

    I've just read the Barrett article; how about telling us something we don't already know. As for the "debates", everyone should pay attention to the content of what is said by the candidates, and how it represents the competent application of knowledge to real world problems, and judge the candidates' knowledge, intelligence and fitness for the job based on that, because the theatrics of voice quality and facial expression on the occasion are not relevant to the question at hand. I know linguists are capable of doing this; I'm not confident the journalists who will be involved in the post mortem commenting are capable of this; as for the viewing public, there may be a few. If people are nervous, and by people I mean those who do not want Trump to win, it is because they fear that the candidates will be judged on theatrics and the application of the preexisting conventional stereotypes. Really, we shouldn't even be having this kind of event if that's all it makes people focus on.

    [(myl) With respect to "telling us something we don't already know", the trouble is that "what we (think we) already know" in areas like this (i.e. group stereotypes and folk theories about stereotypic reactions and so on) often turns out to be false.

    With respect to the role of theatrics in politics, you won't avoid it by avoiding debates.]

  9. Seth Edenbaum said,

    September 25, 2016 @ 8:14 pm

    I suppose my comment was too oblique.
    Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Condoleezza Rice, and Madeleine Albright were or all in positions of power, and none of them is known for their friendly happy smiles. There are other names I could add to the list.

    Women are fighting from a cultural disadvantage, and maybe in the US more than some other countries, but there's also something about Clinton herself, about how well or badly she navigates her own position. Limiting discussions to generalities makes it easier to ignore the details of public performance. She's a politician; politicians are performers.

  10. Alyssa said,

    September 26, 2016 @ 9:32 am

    To return to an older topic for a moment: As a person with the "downturned mouth" definition of "frown", the picture of Mike Pence above is pretty much exactly the expression I picture when I read something like "he frowned in concentration". It never struck me as odd to assume that a person concentrating would also be frowning (in the "unhappy face" sense) because it's such a common thing to do.

    Instead I find it very odd to expect someone talking about a serious topic like national security to be smiling. But of course there is that double standard – from my experience, women aren't expected to prioritize concentrating on the topic at hand, they're expected to prioritize smoothing over social interactions and making everyone comfortable.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 26, 2016 @ 11:00 am

    This seems an odd hook for Prof. Barrett to use. Priebus is a partisan hack. He's supposed to be. It's on his business card. It's part of his job to say relentlessly positive things (even when objectively a bit implausible) about His Team's candidate and to say relentlessly negative things (even when ditto) about The Other Team's candidate. There is no reason to believe he is being more negative about the current Democratic candidate than he would be about a hypothetical bland-mainstream-male Democratic nominee (Martin O'Malley or whoever ). Now, maybe because of voter perceptions that vary depending on a candidate's sex he's being negative about Mrs. Clinton in a different way than he would be about O'Malley, which I guess could be used to illustrate something or other. But it seems it would have been better to use as a hook something comparable said about Mrs. Clinton's facial expression by some pundit who is officially supposed to be striving for neutrality and fairness as between the parties as well as between the sexes.

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