Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Angry Men and Happy Women

Some researchers at Arizona State University discovered that people tend to label male faces as angry and female faces as happy. They wanted to find out if this was a product of stereotyping or due to the influence of some other factor so they manipulated a number of different factors.

In a timed trial, people more quickly label male faces as angry and female faces as happy. Further analysis revealed that this was a very strong and very unconscious association. When they flipped the conditions and asked subjects to label faces as male or female while facial expressions were manipulated. People identified angry faces as male and happy faces as female even faster.

So what, right? Well, it's hard to say exactly why this happens, but it seems less likely that it's strictly due to stereotypes, i.e., it may be a deeper process than stereotyping. One theory is that the facial features (masculine or feminine) associated with anger - heavy brow and angular face - overlap features associated with masculinity. Features associated with happiness - soft features and roundness - overlap typically feminine features. So, it appears the anger expression makes a face seem more masculine - the more masculine a female face is, the more effectively it communicates anger.

Maybe this has something to do with the general lack of acceptance for anger in women. Historically, anger is the only emotional expression acceptable for men and the only emotion women aren't allowed to express, to the point where we get called nasty names when we display anger. Research has shown time and time again that people have enormous difficulty when they perceive someone has violated gender norms and an angry woman fits that bill rather well, doesn't she? If this isn't due to stereotyping and is a much deeper process, it would be much harder to fight against or change.

Just a thought. . .