Previous studies have shown that people use environmental cues to identify the intentions of others with whom they interact. This study sought to examine how an observer’s incidental memory for strangers was influenced by the emotional expression displayed by the stranger as well as the type of action in which the stranger was involved. Incidental memory was assessed using a memory task that first asked observers to view a series of faces (“targets”) that were each paired with an action. Later, observers were asked if they recognized previously viewed targets amongst novel targets. Incidental memory tasks are used to investigate whether or not observers (a) recognize where they had seen targets that they had been exposed to earlier (a.k.a. source memory) and (b) recognize the details that are idiosyncratic to a given target (e.g., facial expression, behavior within their environment, etc.). Overall, as expected in an incidental memory task, observers displayed a source memory advantage for novel targets that were not originally presented. Inconsistent with previous research, observers’ memory for the targets was not greatly impacted by the nature of the activity that they were involved in during the early phase of the experiment (e.g., deed or misdeed). However, the emotional expression displayed by the target did have a substantial influence on the observer’s ability to recognize the target. Specifically, observers recognized targets the best when they had been previously seen displaying negative emotions. In addition, although prior research suggests that individuals who perform good deeds are not readily recognized relative to those who perform bad deeds, observers were far superior at recognizing targets that performed good deeds but that also expressed negative emotions. The inconsistency between the target’s emotional expression and action may have strengthened the observer’s representation of the target, suggesting that observers may be more sensitive to the actions performed by others if ill-intentions are perceived through their emotional displays.
Advisor(s) or Committee Chair
Professor Andrew Mienaltowski
Boswell, Alexandria M., "Insincerity and Depravity Get Noticed" (2011). Mahurin Honors College Capstone Experience/Thesis Projects. Paper 298.