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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Neuroticism predicts increased sensitivity in identifying negative facial affect in young adults


Our personalities color how we interpret others’ emotions. Some people have an increased tendency to identify others’ facial affect as negative or threatening, which may lead to the misinterpretation of social cues, poor responses in social settings, and could exacerbate feelings of stress or anxiety in social situations. Yet, studies linking personality traits on the Big Five Inventory (BFI), specifically neuroticism, to emotion recognition are mixed (Cunningham, 1977; Matsumoto et al., 2000). This study investigated the effect of neuroticism on people’s discriminability and speed when identifying others’ facial emotions. Participants (n = 37) judged the emotion of faces that were morphed along two emotion spectra: happiness to fear and happiness to anger. Responses determined participants’ negativity threshold, or the point on the spectrum where their judgment switched from happy to angry or fearful. We tested the hypothesis that people who scored high on the neuroticism scale of the BFI would detect negative emotions more readily than people scoring low on neuroticism. We also measured the influence of personality traits on response time. As expected, we observed that high neurotic people were more sensitive to negative facial affect than low neurotic people. This extends on the research finding that individuals high in neuroticism have high emotional reactivity to negative stimuli to include ambiguous facial expressions. However, contrary to our hypothesis, response time was not associated with neuroticism level. Together, our findings suggest that people high in neuroticism have an increased sensitivity to detect negative facial emotions. Future studies should test whether the misinterpretation of social cues leads to impoverished social connections.

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