Tag Archives: facial expressions

Taking the “Fear, Anger and Joy” Test

This week for Take-a-Test Tuesday, I took the “Fear, Anger, Joy” test. It’s not an Asperger’s test, but it does measure something that aspies often struggle with: reading emotions through facial expressions. Also, since the last two tests have been question-oriented, I thought a visually-oriented test might be a nice break.

testmybrain.org is a citizen science project run by Harvard University. The website is used to conduct large-scale behavioral research studies with the goal of developing neurocognitive tests. By taking one (or more) of the tests on the website, you contribute to ongoing research and you also get a nice little write-up about your results, what they mean and why the research is being done.

I like the interactivity of the tests and the novel approach that Test My Brain takes. For example, the test that I’m taking today, “Fear, Anger and Joy,” is a test of the ability to identify emotions in facial expressions. Unlike some of the other facial expression recognition tests out there that allow you to study an expression for an unlimited time before identifying it, this test only allows you to see the facial expressions for a couple of seconds. I feel like this is closer to what happens in social situations, where facial expressions are fleeting.

Pros and Cons of Fear, Anger, Joy


  • Automated and self-scoring
  • Better simulates social situations by limiting viewing duration for each set of faces
  • Detailed explanation of scores
  • Results include average scores and percentile ranking so you know how you measure against others who’ve taken the test
  • Explanation of why the research is being done with a link to more info
  • Taking the test contributes to ongoing research


  • Test is part of active research so no conclusive results
  • No direct link to AS/autism/autistic traits
  • Forced choice between 2 options equals a 50% chance of being correct when guessing

Taking the Test

This test takes 15 to 20 minutes so be sure you have the time to complete it before you begin. To take the test, go to testmybrain.org and click on the Go! button next to the “Fear, Anger, Joy” test (you may have to scroll down to find it–the order of the tests changes).

You’ll be asked to make your browser window large. I kept mine the size I normally use and it worked fine. The next screen is a simplified informed consent form. You’ll be told what the research is being used for and asked to consent (agree). Once you do, you’re officially a research subject! The next screen collects some demographic information. It’s all anonymous–you won’t be asked any identifying information to get your results or anything annoying like that.

Once you’ve entered your demographic info, you’ll begin the test. There are a couple of practice questions before the first set of faces appears. You’ll see two faces side by side and be asked to identify which is happier, sadder or angrier. There are 56 sets of faces for each emotion. That sounds like a lot until you realize that each set is visible for only a couple of seconds.

After you’ve completed all three sets of faces, you’ll be asked if you encountered any technical problems or if you cheated in any way. Researchers think of everything. Once you confirm that your results aren’t tainted, you’ll be taken to the scoring page.

Scoring the Test

The aim of the test is to evaluate how well people can detect subtle differences in the level of emotion conveyed by an expression. I found the expressions presented at the beginning of each to be obviously different. One face was clearly much happier, sadder or angrier.

As each section progressed, the differences in the expressions became much less obvious and I found myself guessing more frequently. I also realized that scared and happy can look similar to me. The same is true for scared and angry.

Here are my scores (out of a possible 56 on each section):

Which face is angrier?: Your score was 45. The average score is 45.18.You scored higher than three out of every ten people who took this test.

My rankings on the anger section
I scored slightly below average on the anger section.

Which face is happier?: Your score was 54. The average score is 49.49.You scored higher than seven out of every ten people who took this test.

Nearly a perfect score on the happy faces!
Nearly a perfect score on the happy faces!

Which face is more afraid?: Your score was 47. The average score is 43.18.You scored higher than six out of every ten people who took this test.

And a little bit above average on the afraid faces.
And a bit above average on the afraid faces.

I did better than I expected to. I’m not surprised that I score the highest on the happy faces because happiness is (for me) most clearly expressed around the mouth (smiling) and that’s where I most often focus my gaze.

Anger forced me to look at the area around the eyes more and I had to purposely do that. For fear, I quickly found a pattern that helped me: furrowed brows or foreheads. I spent the rest of the “afraid” section looking first (and sometimes only) at the foreheads of both people to see which looked more scrunched up. Maybe I should have confessed to cheating?

Apparently I have trouble taking in a facial expression as a unified whole. I seem to look at the various parts for clues and then try to sum them up.

I also found my perseverative nature kick in when I had to change from finding the angrier face to finding the happier face. On the first of the happy practice sets, I chose the angrier face because that’s what I’d been doing for the previous 58 trials. Oops.

The Bottom Line

This test was fun to take and I felt like I learned something about how I process facial expressions.

How did you do? Were you surprised by the results?

You Scare Me

Last summer, my husband and I had some new friends over for lunch. They brought along their two young boys. Toward the end of the meal, the 5-year-old, who was sitting next to me, looked at me and said, “You scare me.”

This was pre-Asperger’s, so like everyone else at the table, I laughed it off as one of those inappropriate things that kids sometimes say.

Still, his comment stayed with me. I couldn’t figure out what I’d done to scare him. He was a friendly, talkative little boy. I’d showed him how to get my dog to do a couple of simple tricks and had given him some bits of hot dog to use as treats. I’d asked him about his swimming lessons and whether he wanted a dog of his own. I’d cooked him a cheeseburger so he wouldn’t have to eat the fancy grown-up food. He’d even chosen the seat next to me at lunch. I thought we were getting along great!

And then, out of nowhere, he told me that I was scary. I was more puzzled than offended, but there was something about his comment that really stuck in my head. Sometimes when I’d catch people staring at me in a restaurant or a store, his words would come back.

You scare me.


A Hard Truth

Months later, I was sorting through boxes of photos and it hit me. There it was–there I was–staring back at myself from photo after photo with the dreaded flat affect. Since they say a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s how a flat affect looks:

And to prove that wasn’t just me getting caught at a bad moment, here’s one I actually posed for:

Smile! Or not . . .

These pictures are hard to share. I don’t like looking at them. In fact, I almost never like looking at photos of myself. If I don’t have a blank expression, I tend to look like I’m faking a smile or making an uncomfortable, when-is-this-going-to-be-over expression.

As I was sorting through twenty-plus years worth of photos before we moved, I found dozens or maybe hundreds of pictures of myself with some variation of a blank, checked-out expression. I don’t know why I hadn’t seen it before but there it was. Standing in front of the Christmas tree. Attending a wedding. On vacation.

One after another, I tossed them in the trash bag on the floor beside me, tired of looking at this woman who was starting to scare me.

Flat Affect

From my reading about Asperger’s I was aware of the difficulty aspies have in reading facial expressions, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I don’t project appropriate facial expressions–or sometimes any expression at all.

The technical term for this is flat affect, which means that a person displays reduced emotional expressiveness. It takes a five-year-old to put it in plain English though: you scare me.

Looking at those photos, hundreds of them in a row, for hours on end that afternoon, I finally answered the question why? Flat affect is unsettling to others–it makes me look bored, angry, sad or spaced out at inappropriate times.

To a five-year-old, who is probably relying more heavily on nonverbal than verbal communication to judge adults, my inappropriate or absent expressions were creating mixed messages. Though I was saying and doing “nice” things, the nonverbal expressions I was projecting weren’t the typical “kind, caring adult” cues he was expecting to go with my words and actions.

Maybe I Can Learn to Fake It?

The disconnect between my expressions and thoughts is frustrating. Not only do I have trouble verbalizing my emotions but my face keeps wandering off on its own and freelancing.

More than once I’ve had a professor pause during a lecture to ask me if I had a question. One day, curious about why this happened so often, I finally said, “No, why?”

“Because you’re frowning,” the professor replied.

Surprised at his reply, I blurted out, “I’m not frowning. This is my concentrating face.”

The rest of the class laughed, but the question was right up there with you scare me in how deeply it unsettled me.

Obviously I was projecting something different from what I was experiencing internally. There I was sitting in calculus class day after day, looking confused, but never asking any questions. This made my professor so uncomfortable that he stopped in the middle of his lecture to ask me what my problem was. I wonder if he even believed me when I told him I wasn’t confused.

I wonder how often people think I’m being deceitful because my verbal and nonverbal communication doesn’t match.

This is a problem that feels too pervasive to fix. I’m literally projecting an expression of some sort during my every waking moment. There’s no way I could–or would even want to–pay attention to what that expression is all the time.

There are also plenty of times when my expression does agree with my disposition, especially when I’m genuinely happy.

Here’s a photo taken around the same time as the above two shots, except in this one I was truly happy and look it:

Since that exchange with my calculus professor, I’ve occasionally tried projecting a specific expression. In class, if I noticed a professor glancing in my direction too often, I assumed that I was doing the confused face and tried put on my “interested but neutral” face. I also made sure to nod a lot, a reassuring sign to NTs.

It seemed to help–it at least reduced the number of concerned looks in my direction–but I’m not very motivated to do this on a regular basis. I’ve seen other aspies talk about how acting lessons or practicing in a mirror helped them overcome flat affect. I admire their commitment to doing this–it sounds like it would take a lot of time and practice to get right.

Then again, if I had a job that required a lot of contact with the public, I might have the motivation to put more effort into improving the type of nonverbal cues I project. Maybe somewhere down the road it will be something I’ll decide to try but for now, I’ll just go on scaring small children and bewildering acquaintances.