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Alternative Title

Are facial expressions special?

Publication Date


First Advisor

Peter A. deVilliers

Document Type

Honors Project

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts




Priming, Ambigous figures, Mixed emotions, Facial expressions, Psychology, Semantics, Relative adjectives


Interpreting emotions on a face is something that people learn to do early on in life. Mixed emotions, however, are more complicated to understand and categorize. This study aimed to examine people’s interpretations of facial expressions of mixed emotions in comparison to other complicated visual stimuli – ambiguous figures. People can be influenced to see one interpretation of an ambiguous figure if they are primed with a disambiguated version of that figure or other objects associated with that interpretation. This study sought to see if the same priming effect would occur with facial expressions of mixed emotions. Before being asked to categorize the emotion expressed by a face, participants were primed with one of the two images of the strong single emotions that were used to make that mixed emotion face. The same procedure was done for ambiguous figures, using the disambiguated images from previous studies as primes. The experiment showed that seeing a disambiguated prime before an ambiguous figure made participants more likely to see that object or figure in the ambiguous stimulus. In contrast, when primed with a strong basic emotion used in the facial expression of mixed emotion, participants were less likely to see the primed emotion, and were more likely to see the non-primed emotion. This difference in effects of priming may be explained by the semantic shift effect found previously with emotion adjectives, or an adaption after-effect special to facial stimuli that are represented uniquely in the brain.


©2019 Elizabeth Grace Van Winkle. Access limited to the Smith College community and other researchers while on campus. Smith College community members also may access from off-campus using a Smith College log-in. Other off-campus researchers may request a copy through Interlibrary Loan for personal use.




44 pages : illustrations (some color). Includes bibliographical references (pages 34-36)