Beyond pleasure and pain: Facial expression ambiguity in adults and children during intense situations

Sofia Wenzler, Sarah Levine, Rolf van Dick, Viola Oertel-Knöchel, Hillel Aviezer*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


According to psychological models as well as common intuition, intense positive and negative situations evoke highly distinct emotional expressions. Nevertheless, recent work has shown that when judging isolated faces, the affective valence of winning and losing professional tennis players is hard to differentiate. However, expressions produced by professional athletes during publicly broadcasted sports events may be strategically controlled. To shed light on this matter we examined if ordinary people's spontaneous facial expressions evoked during highly intense situations are diagnostic for the situational valence. In Experiment 1 we compared reactions with highly intense positive situations (surprise soldier reunions) versus highly intense negative situations (terror attacks). In Experiment 2, we turned to children and compared facial reactions with highly positive situations (e.g., a child receiving a surprise trip to Disneyland) versus highly negative situations (e.g., a child discovering her parents ate up all her Halloween candy). The results demonstrate that facial expressions of both adults and children are often not diagnostic for the valence of the situation. These findings demonstrate the ambiguity of extreme facial expressions and highlight the importance of context in everyday emotion perception.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)807-814
Number of pages8
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 American Psychological Association.


  • Arousal
  • Intense facial expressions
  • Spontaneous expressions
  • Valence


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