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Emotion-detection applications built on outdated science, report warns

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Milagros Lester
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Software that purportedly reads emotions in faces is being deployed or tested for a variety of purposes, including surveillance, hiring, clinical diagnosis, and market research.

But a new scientific report finds that facial movements are an inexact gauge of a person's feelings, behaviors or intentions.

"It is not possible to confidently infer happiness from a smile, anger from a scowl or sadness from a frown, as much of current technology tries to do when applying what are mistakenly believed to be the scientific facts," a group of leading experts in psychological science, neuroscience and computer science write in their comprehensive research review.

The report appears in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, and is authored by Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University, Ralph Adolphs of the California Institute of Technology, Stacy Marsella of Northeastern University and the University of Glasgow, Aleix M. Martinez of The Ohio State University and Seth D. Pollak of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The authors note that the general public and some scientists believe that there are unique facial expressions that reliably indicate six emotion categories: anger, sadness, happiness, disgust, fear, and surprise.

A scowl or a smile can express more than one emotion depending on the situation, the individual or the culture, they say.

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