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How social predictions shape sensory perceptions

How people perceive, interpret and evaluate race, class and gender is influenced by their social knowledge. An EU initiative explored whether perception is actually affected by social knowledge ingrained in stereotypes.

Industrial Technologies

Recent findings suggest that social knowledge can directly influence very basic visual perception processes. Social expectations alter how we see people and the actions and objects related to them. With this in mind, the EU-funded SOCIAL_PREDICT (Predictive coding in social perception: A social neuroscientific approach to study the dynamic social brain) project set out to test whether expectations about a person's emotional state can make someone see that emotion in their face. Project partners created a set of sentences that generate either positive or negative expectations about a person's emotional state. The expectation of a positive emotion encouraged participants to rate an indiscernible face with a neutral expression as having a positive (happy) expression. In contrast, the negative emotion elicited a negative (angry) expression. Researchers tested the hypothesis by measuring the electrical activity of the brain in the earliest stages of face perception. They combined the emotional sentences with neutral faces to elicit the perception of expectation-based emotional expressions (angry and happy). The SOCIAL_PREDICT team also combined neutral sentences with happy and angry faces to elicit the perception of perception-based emotional expressions (angry and happy). Results show that expectations about emotions lead to a similar pattern of activation in the brain as the visual perception of that emotion. Overall, findings strongly indicate that expectations about the emotional state that another person is in can alter which emotions we see in the face of that person. SOCIAL_PREDICT shed light on whether basic perception is indeed shaped by social knowledge that is rooted in stereotypes. How our predictions shape perception also has broader implications for many everyday scenarios.


Social knowledge, perceptions, stereotypes, SOCIAL_PREDICT, brain, emotional state

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