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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
BURKE, N. E. & SHRUM, S.K. (2001). The Effect of Gender on the Personality Characteristics Assigned to Various Facial Expressions. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 4. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved December 6, 2023 .

The Effect of Gender on the Personality Characteristics Assigned to Various Facial Expressions

Sponsored by: MUKUL BHALLA (bhalla@loyno.edu)
This study involved looking at how people interpret different forms of smiling and whether or not there is a gender difference. We surveyed 45 males and 45 females, college students between the ages of 18 and 25 of African American, Hispanic, and Caucasian races. Participants were shown 2 pictures of a white male and female in one combination of smiling, neutral, or frowning faces. They rated what their interpretation of the person’s personality characteristics were on a 10-point semantic differential scale. We supported our hypothesis that participants would rate smiling faces more positively than neutral or frowning faces. We also found that overall, female faces were rated more positively than male faces.

The Effect of Gender on the Personality Characteristics Assigned to Various Facial Expressions One of the largest differences between the sexes is nonverbal communication. Women generally seem to interpret body language and facial expression more accurately than men do, and sometimes they read too much into facial expressions. Killgore (2000) states that women are usually better skilled than men at recognizing different facial expressions. Females are better at accurately identifying sadness and fear, while males may be better than females at recognizing certain facial expressions like anger and aggression. Nonverbal communication is a huge mystery. As King points out on his website, http://www2.pstcc.cc.tn.us/~dking/nvcom.htm, people tend to think nonverbal cues are more truthful than verbal communication. The problem with this is that nonverbal cues are not always accurately interpreted. People may think that an action means something when it does not. The body does not always accurately convey what the mind is thinking. In cases such as these, it is unfair to judge a person simply by nonverbal communication. It is very easy to get a wrong impression of someone, and such impressions can be hard to change.Early research in the field of nonverbal communication started in the early 1960s. It used the method of isolating one behavior at a time and examining it. An extremely influential work of the time was Sommer (1959, 1961, 1965) who conducted research on personal space, and helped show the need to understand nonverbal behaviors. In his review, Patterson (1984) points out that such studies literally opened the door for nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication research has now evolved to incorporate more complex studies such as one by Hess, Blairy, and Kleck (1997). The researchers used two white males and two white females’ pictures each making the four facial expressions of anger, disgust, sadness, and happiness. A morphing program was then used to create intermediate expressions so that the expressions differed by slight increments. The final set of stimuli totaled ninety-six and they were shown to the participants in twenty-four random orders on computer screens. They found that people interpret weak emotional expressions as weak emotional feelings and strong emotional expressions as strong emotional feelings. They also found that the gender of the person observed influenced how accurately the facial expressions were interpreted. Male expressions of disgust and sadness were more accurately interpreted than were female expressions of disgust and sadness. However, expressions of joy such as smiling were more accurately interpreted in females than males. The most basic facial expression is the smile. As shown in a study done by Rine, the congenitally blind cannot form facial expressions of an emotion they do not feel except for the smile. Smiling is recognized across cultures as a sign of friendliness. Otta, Abrosio, and Hoshino (1996) researched interpretations of different types of smiling; i.e. closed lip smile, upper smile, and across-face smile. The researchers used young, middle-aged, and older people as stimuli. The stimuli people were asked to smile either with closed lip, upper, or across-face smiles, or a neutral expression. Each subject was then shown only one picture and was asked to rate the picture on a seven-point scale. They did not find a statistical significance in the difference between facial expressions, but it is still an interesting concept to look at. Otta, Abrosio, and Hoshino’s study served as the basis for ours. We proposed to take their study a little further. Instead of just different types of smiling faces, we used a frowning, a neutral, and a smiling expression of both a male and a female. We also showed the participants two pictures of a male and a female, not just one picture. We hoped to show that not only does expression have an effect on how people rate a person on personality characteristics, but also that gender plays an important role also. We predicted that females would attribute more positive characteristics to the male faces than the female ones, and vice versa.


We recruited 40 male and 50 female undergraduates from Loyola University. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 25. It was a convenience sample and participation was on a voluntary basis.

We used nine different combinations of faces, and each combination was reviewed by ten participants. The age of the male and female in the pictures was between 18-25 years. We handed out to all participants: a consent form that informed the participant of what we were doing and that volunteering was optional, and a survey. The survey asked for demographic information such as race, gender, and age. Below that were two pictures, one of a male and one of a female in various combinations of facial expressions. Below each picture was a ten point semantic differential scale with the same ten characteristics listed in a scale form on each side. On one side of the scale was a characteristic, and on the other was the opposite. (See Appendix). The pictures were taken with a digital camera and were of a white male and female in smiling, neutral, and frowning expressions. Each survey included two pictures of a male in either smiling, frowning, or neutral expressions, and a female in either of the same three expressions. Five females and five males received each combination of faces.

The design of the study was a 2x2x3 mixed experiment design. The independent variables were the smiling or non-smiling pictures that the participant received, the gender of the participant, and the gender of the person in the picture. The dependent variable was the reaction that the person had to the picture that was measured by how the participant rated the picture. We handed out packets to various classes. The students participated on a voluntary basis; if they did not wish to participate, they could simply leave. We randomly handed out packets to different students in psychology classrooms and after meetings that they had attended. Each packet contained: a paper informing the participant exactly what we were studying and that they could decide not to participate at any time; and two pictures, in some combination of smiling, frowning, or neutral male and smiling, frowning, or neutral female. For example, one person might have received a smiling male and a neutral female, and the next person might have received a frowning male and a smiling female. After signing the consent form, the participants were then asked to rate on a scale of 1-10 what they thought some of the characteristics the person in the picture would have, based on the expression the person had. Some of the characteristics that we asked about were kindness, attractiveness, intelligence, happiness, and successfulness. When the participants were finished, they were debriefed by us, and we answered any questions they had and were they dismissed.

We found that there was a significant difference between the ratings of neutral, or frowning, and the smiling faces. For our analysis, we used a one-way ANOVA test. We used an alpha level of 0.05. We also used a post hoc LSD test for multiple comparisons. For the females rating the female significant differences were found, (F (2,42) = 13.648, p<.001). The mean for smiling females was 70.2 (SD= 8.6784), neutral = 61.6 (SD= 11.1278), and frowning = 50.73 (SD= 10.7069). There were significant differences among all three with the smiling being rated the highest, and the neutral faces being rated higher than the frowning ones. This finding has led us to reject the null hypothesis that said that there was no difference in the ratings of the smiling and non-smiling faces. For the females rating males, F (2,42) = 11.286, p<.001. The mean for the smiling males = 66.333 (SD= 10.2097), neutral = 61.333 (SD= 11.1141), and frowning = 50.2667 (SD= 6.4638). There was significant LSD post hoc results between the frowning and non-frowning expressions with frowning being rated the lowest, but between smiling and neutral expressions there were no significant results. The value of the test of the males rating females came out to be F (2,42) =15.30, p<.001. The mean for the smiling female = 69.60 (SD= 8.7652), neutral = 59.4667 (SD= 9.0069), and frowning = 50.80 (SD= 10.1221). There were significant results between the smiling, neutral, and frowning faces with the smiling face rated the highest and the neutral being rated higher than the frowning. For the males rating the males, F (2,42) = 1.122, p=.335. The mean for the smiling male = 58.20, (SD= 10.6113), neutral = 55.6, (SD= 10.3150), and frowning = 52.4667, (SD= 10.5618). There were no significant results between the smiling, frowning, and neutral faces, because the significance levels were over .05. In a general linear model factorial design the overall ratings of all the female faces were shown to be more positive than the overall ratings of all the male faces. F(1,72)= 4.574, p= .036. The mean for the male faces = 57.367, and for female faces = 60.40. There were significant results here in that the significance level was under .05. Another interesting trend that came up was that if a smiling female was paired with any of the male pictures, the ratings of the male would be higher. The reverse was not true. F(2,72)= 5.470, p<.001.

In conclusion, there were significant results to support our hypotheses. Generally, smiling was rated higher by both males and females than the frowning or neutral expressions. There was also significant results that showed that female faces overall were rated more positively than the male faces. Smiling females also helped the ratings of the male faces. We did not find any significant results on our hypothesis that the participants would rate the picture of the opposite gender higher. Otta et al. (1996) showed that there were no significant results in the difference between the types of smiling. Overall, smiling faces were attributed more positive characteristics. They also found that females rated the females more harshly than the males, and put forth the theory that the gender of the participant and the stimulus has an effect on ratings. Our research did not have any significant results to support that theory, but we did find that overall females were rated higher than males. In any case, it should be further looked into in a future study. A problem with this study could have been race. We used a white female and male as the subjects for our pictures, but our participants were white, black, and Hispanic. This could have caused problems on some of the questions such as beauty, where someone might think white people are unattractive. We tried to use a morphing program so that we could meld races, but were unable to do so. A definite improvement for the future would be to eliminate the variable of race as much as possible. Basically, this study showed the importance of first impressions and facial expressions. The participants had not seen either of the people used in the pictures before. They were asked to rate what their impressions were based on appearance and facial expression. This type of research could be of great practical value. Non-verbal language is very important. For example, it could give someone an edge over someone else at a job interview if the person only knew how to hold his head or what expression to be making. Research on non-verbal behavior will only continue to get better, and it will be quite interesting in the future to see if people are harder on their own gender and if a smile will mean that you are successful.

Hess, U., Blairy, S., & Kleck, R. (1997). “The Intensity of Emotional Facial Expressions and Decoding Accuracy”. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 21, 241-257. Killgore. (2000). “Sex Differences in Identifying the Facial Affect of Normal and Mirror-Reversed Faces”. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 91, 525-530. King. (1997). Nonverbal Communication. {On-line}. Available: http://www2.pstcc.cc.tn.us/~dking/nvcom.htm January 30, 2001. Otta, E., Abrosio, F., & Hoshino, R. (1996). “Reading a Smiling Face: Messages Conveyed by Various Forms of Smiling”. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 82, 1111-1120. Patterson, M. (1984). “Nonverbal Exchange: Past, Present, and Future”. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 8, 350-359. Rine. (1991). “Neuropsychology of Facial Expression”. in Robert Feldman & Bernard Rime (Eds.), Fundamentals of Nonverbal Behavior (pp. 3-30). New York: Cambridge University Press.


Submitted 5/11/01 12:10:33 AM
Last Edited 5/11/01 12:17:59 AM
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