Hidden Emotions: The Subtle Impact of Facial Color

Summary: Researchers explored how facial color affects our subconscious perception of emotions.

Using photos with “hybrid emotions,” they discovered that reddish facial hues enhanced the friendliness of happy expressions without affecting angry ones. Notably, facial color subtly influences how we unconsciously perceive these mixed emotions.

The study provides preliminary insights, hinting at future applications in various sectors, such as customer care and criminal psychology, by potentially enabling better recognition of implicit emotional states.

Key Facts:

  1. Color and Perception: The research revealed that reddish facial colors enhance the perceived friendliness of happy expressions without altering perceptions of anger.
  2. Subconscious Influence: Facial color can subtly affect how emotions are perceived at a subconscious level, even when expressions are mixed or neutral.
  3. Future Applications: Insights from the study hint at applicability in numerous fields, such as identifying employee attitudes or supporting customer interactions, particularly with the evolution of AI technology.

Source: TUT

A research team in the Visual Perception and Cognition Laboratory and Cognitive Neurotechnology Unit of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Toyohashi University of Technology has conducted experiments to investigate the effects of facial color on implicit facial expression perception.

It is well-known that we associate reddish faces with happiness or anger, but their research explored whether facial coloring also affects how we subconsciously perceive emotions, those feelings of which we are not explicitly aware.

This shows three women with different color tones on their faces.
Overall, their study shows that the color of a face can quietly affect how we perceive emotions, even when we are unaware of it. Credit: Neuroscience News

In a recent study, the research team investigated how the color of a person’s face affects the way we see emotions even if we do not clearly realize these emotions.

The results of this study were published in the journal, Cognition and Emotion, on September 16, 2023.


“Some previous research has shown that facial color modulates the recognition of facial expressions, such that the redder the face, the angrier the face appears. Furthermore, intergenerational, and cross-cultural comparisons suggest that the facial color effect may be influenced by language. Therefore, we suggest that facial color also influences implicit facial expressions,” explained Dr. Tetsuto Minami, who proposed the research idea.

In this study, the research team used special photos with mixed emotions referred to hybrid emotions, such as a little happiness or a little anger mixed with neutral emotions. In the first experiment, they found that these hybrid emotion photos were seen as neutral expressions.

In the second experiment, they tested how friendly these mixed emotions seemed when the photos had different colors, including reddish and natural tones.

They discovered that reddish colors made happiness seem even friendlier, but it did not change how we saw angry expressions.

In the third experiment, they confirmed that even with reddish colors, our brains still see these mixed emotions in a hidden way.

Overall, their study shows that the color of a face can quietly affect how we perceive emotions, even when we are unaware of it.

The research team believes that research in psychology or in cognitive science is always interesting and highly applicable. Therefore, this research can be a premise for developing many useful future applications in diverse fields.

Hoang Nam Nguyen, the first author of the article, said, “Nowadays, technology has been developing fast with the strength of Artificial Intelligence (AI). However, it is difficult for AI devices to recognize hidden emotions on human faces. Even humans in everyday life have difficulties in recognizing those emotions.

“Our research hopes to be applicable in areas such as identifying employee attitudes in the company, supporting customer care, identifying criminal psychology, … We believe that with the rapid development of modern science and technology, such applications will quickly appear.”

Future Outlook

However, these research results are only initial suggestions regarding the hypothesis about the impact of facial color on hidden emotions. The research team believes that more tests still need to be done to further support this argument. In addition, investigating different groups with different backgrounds (such as race, age…) of test participants is also necessary.

About this emotion and perception research news

Author: Yoko Okubo
Source: TUT
Contact: Yoko Okubo – TUT
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
The effect of facial colour on implicit facial expressions” by Tetsuto Minami et al. Cognition and Emotion


The effect of facial colour on implicit facial expressions

Humans recognise reddish-coloured faces as angry. However, does facial colour also affect “implicit” facial expression perception of which humans are not explicitly aware? In this study, we investigated the effects of facial colour on implicit facial expression perception.

The experimental stimuli were “hybrid faces”, in which the low-frequency component of the neutral facial expression image was replaced with the low-frequency component of the facial expression image of happiness or anger.

In Experiment 1, we confirmed that the hybrid face stimuli were perceived as neutral and, therefore, supported implicit facial expression perception.

In Experiment 2, the hybrid face stimuli were adjusted to natural and reddish facial colours, and their friendliness ratings were compared.

The results showed that the expression of happiness was rated as more friendly than the expression of anger. In addition, the expression of happiness was rated as friendlier when the low-frequency happy component was red, but the friendliness rating of the expression of anger did not change when it was presented in red.

In Experiment 3, we affirmed the implicit facial expression perception even in reddish colours.

These results suggest that facial colour modulates the perception of implicit facial expressions in hybrid facial stimuli.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.