People with negative feelings towards the hijab see women's happiness as sadness

  • Date

    Wed 20 Oct 21

Sebastian Korb

People who have negative feelings toward the hijab are more likely to misread the emotions of women wearing them and see happiness as sadness, research by the University of Essex has shown.

A cross-cultural study has shown that our opinions shape how quickly and accurately we read facial expressions.

It revealed that in split-second decisions, pre-existing attitudes affected perceptions of women in a headscarf – with a negative view resulting in happiness being misread in up to 38 per cent of cases.

A hijab is a religious veil worn by many Muslim women in the presence of men outside of their immediate family which covers the head, hair, and chest.

Research-led by Dr Sebastian Korb, from the Department of Psychology at Essex, revealed pictures of women wearing it activated implicit biases linked to negative emotions for some people.

Dr Korb said: “These results highlight how our own opinions can have effects that trickle down to such basic skills as our ability to recognise other people’s emotions. 

“I hope that making the public aware of these biases will allow people to fight against them, and to be less influenced by their misperceptions.”

The study found that perceptions towards the hijab led to misidentifying happy faces as sad – particularly on less intense expressions.

The research studied 141 people in Austria and Turkey monitoring by computer programme their speed, accuracy, and hesitation of responses.

In total 18 per cent of both groups had a slightly negative to very negative view of the hijab.

They were shown images of eight different women wearing it whose facial expressions of happiness and sadness had been morphed into five levels of emotional intensity.

A prompt forced them to decide in under a second, moving a cursor to the labels happy or sad – the trajectory of the mouse cursor also tracked any hesitation.

After finishing they were then asked about their feelings on the head covering, measuring factors such as levels of acceptance, admiration, and hostility.

People tested in Austria and Turkey overall shared overwhelmingly positive views of the hijab and were similar in age, education level and gender.

However, Austrians with more negative opinions about the hijab made more misidentification errors and attributed sadness to happy faces.

Turkish participants with negative views were also biased and saw more sadness in mildly happy faces of women wearing the hijab.

Dr Korb added: “This is one of the really interesting and somewhat surprising aspects of the study.

“Not only did some Westerners have an emotion recognition bias when seeing women wearing the hijab, but a similar effect was also found in the Turkish sample.”

Dr Korb worked with academics Dr Giorgia Silani at the University of Vienna, Tugba Ceren Deniz, and Dr Bengi Ünal at TED University in Turkey, as well as Dr Alasdair Clarke at the University of Essex.