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PLoS One. 2011;6(6):e20989. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0020989. Epub 2011 Jun 9.

Action and emotion recognition from point light displays: an investigation of gender differences.

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  • 1Motor Control Laboratory, Research Centre of Movement Control and Neuroplasticity, Department of Biomedical Kinesiology, Group Biomedical Sciences, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Heverlee, Belgium.


Folk psychology advocates the existence of gender differences in socio-cognitive functions such as 'reading' the mental states of others or discerning subtle differences in body-language. A female advantage has been demonstrated for emotion recognition from facial expressions, but virtually nothing is known about gender differences in recognizing bodily stimuli or body language. The aim of the present study was to investigate potential gender differences in a series of tasks, involving the recognition of distinct features from point light displays (PLDs) depicting bodily movements of a male and female actor. Although recognition scores were considerably high at the overall group level, female participants were more accurate than males in recognizing the depicted actions from PLDs. Response times were significantly higher for males compared to females on PLD recognition tasks involving (i) the general recognition of 'biological motion' versus 'non-biological' (or 'scrambled' motion); or (ii) the recognition of the 'emotional state' of the PLD-figures. No gender differences were revealed for a control test (involving the identification of a color change in one of the dots) and for recognizing the gender of the PLD-figure. In addition, previous findings of a female advantage on a facial emotion recognition test (the 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test' (Baron-Cohen, 2001)) were replicated in this study. Interestingly, a strong correlation was revealed between emotion recognition from bodily PLDs versus facial cues. This relationship indicates that inter-individual or gender-dependent differences in recognizing emotions are relatively generalized across facial and bodily emotion perception. Moreover, the tight correlation between a subject's ability to discern subtle emotional cues from PLDs and the subject's ability to basically discriminate biological from non-biological motion provides indications that differences in emotion recognition may - at least to some degree - be related to more basic differences in processing biological motion per se.

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