A Critique of Automated Approaches to Code Facial Expressions: What Do Researchers Need to Know?

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Facial expression recognition software is becoming more commonly used by affective scientists to measure facial expressions. Although the use of this software has exciting implications, there are persistent and concerning issues regarding the validity and reliability of these programs. In this paper, we highlight three of these issues: biases of the programs against certain skin colors and genders; the common inability of these programs to capture facial expressions made in non-idealized conditions (e.g., “in the wild”); and programs being forced to adopt the underlying assumptions of the specific theory of emotion on which each software is based. We then discuss three directions for the future of affective science in the area of automated facial coding. First, researchers need to be cognizant of exactly how and on which data sets the machine learning algorithms underlying these programs are being trained. In addition, there are several ethical considerations, such as privacy and data storage, surrounding the use of facial expression recognition programs. Finally, researchers should consider collecting additional emotion data, such as body language, and combine these data with facial expression data in order to achieve a more comprehensive picture of complex human emotions. Facial expression recognition programs are an excellent method of collecting facial expression data, but affective scientists should ensure that they recognize the limitations and ethical implications of these programs.


This article was originally published in Affective Science in 2023. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42761-023-00195-0

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