CHICAGO — Whether you assess a crowd as an angry mob or happy partygoers depends on both you and whom you’re looking at, a new study suggests. Emotions and sex influence how well people assess the collective mood of a crowd, Hee Yeon Im of Harvard Medical School reported October 19 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.
When shown images of faces in a crowd, participants were better at identifying happy female crowds than happy male crowds, and better at spotting angry male crowds than angry female crowds, Im and her colleagues found. What’s more, female happy faces were judged to be happier than an equally happy male group, and angry male crowds were judged to be angrier than angry females, suggesting that the sex of the people in the crowd colors how a person perceives emotion. A viewer’s anxiety also plays into the assessment. People who had more anxious traits were faster to assess a crowd than less anxious people, though this speed came with a cost: Anxious people made more mistakes in recognizing a happy crowd.
Overall, humans are quite good at assessing the mood of a crowd, Im says, but people’s abilities vary. Teasing apart the factors that influence crowd recognition might ultimately offer insight into disorders in which people have trouble recognizing emotions.