Investigating the Role of Context in the Perception of Basic vs. Social Emotions

  • Kirsten E Westmoreland

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Reading the emotional states of others based on visual information alone is a fundamental aspect of rapid impression formation. However, it remains unclear whether complex social emotions (such as feelings of pride or envy) can be reliably detected by merely observing others. In recent years, there has been an increased interest in these social emotions and individual differences that may influence the perception of them. In this PhD thesis, I thus demonstrate that the detection of social emotions is facilitated when other people are seen in the context of meaningful interpersonal encounters. In Study 1 I show that the perception of social emotions is enhanced when emotionally expressive target individuals are seen with meaningful social companions rather than with social distractors or in isolation. In Study 2 I illustrate that the perception of social emotions increases systematically when formerly isolated individuals are subsequently seen with meaningful social companions. These findings indicated that there was a clear facilitation of social emotion perception by meaningful social dyads. Using these findings, I then set out to establish a novel Social Emotion Evaluation Task (SEET) using semantically meaningful dyadic stimuli. This task was evaluated in Study 3 using an emotion recall priming task to determine how attention to context influences accuracy scores on the SEET. Two correlational studies were then conducted to determine if variance in accuracy scores on the SEET could be explained by other tasks related to emotion processing (Study 4) or individual differences such as autism and schizotypal traits (Study 5). The findings described in this thesis support the idea of social emotion perception as a unique psychological skill and present a novel method for measuring this new and exciting construct.
Date of Award25 Jan 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorSusanne Quadflieg (Supervisor) & Iain D Gilchrist (Supervisor)

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