"It's kind of striking that an angry facial expression is consciously valued as a very negative signal by almost everyone, yet at a non-conscious level can be like a tasty morsel that some people will vigorously work for," said Oliver Schultheiss, co-author of the study and a U-M associate professor of psychology.
The study took saliva samples from participants to measure testosterone.
Then, they gave them a test. Here's the details:
Participants then worked on a "learning task" in which one complex sequence of keypresses was followed by an angry face on the screen, another sequence was followed by a neutral face, and a third sequence was followed by no face.
Participants who were high in testosterone relative to other members of their sex learned the sequence that was followed by an angry face better than the other sequences, while participants low in testosterone did not show this learning advantage for sequences that were reinforced by an angry face.
Notably, this effect emerged more strongly in response to faces that were presented subliminally, that is, too fast to allow conscious identification. Perhaps just as noteworthy, participants were not aware of the patterns in the sequences of keypresses as they learned them.
While high-testosterone participants showed better learning in response to anger faces, they were unaware of the fact that they learned anything in the first place and unaware of what kind of faces had reinforced their learning.
They also hypothesize that this may explain why some people enjoy teasing others so much.
"Perhaps teasers are reinforced by that fleeting 'annoyed look' on someone else's face and therefore will continue to heckle that person to get that look again and again," he said. "As long as it does not stay there for long, it's not perceived as a threat, but as a reward."Fascinating stuff, but I wonder about the evolutionary advantage of this?