—Amir Robertson (Mentor: Jolie Wormwood)


Emotion perception, or how we view and understand the emotions of others, is a critically important part of everyday interactions. However, there is ample evidence that emotion perception ability differs across individuals and can be biased (Lindquist & Gendron, 2013). Gender, in particular, has been shown to significantly influence emotion perception (Thompson, 2013; Olderbak, 2017; Sullivan, 2017). Previous research suggests that there are gendered stereotypes about emotion, meaning people tend to believe men and women experience and express emotions differently. A series of studies showed that women were generally believed to experience and express most emotions more often than men, except for a few high-dominance emotions such as anger and pride (Plant, 2000).

These gendered expectations about emotion influence how a person’s emotion expressions are perceived by others. For example, people rate images of women as sadder and less angry than images of men (Plant, 2000). People also tend to pick up on sad emotion expressions in female faces faster than those of males and are generally quicker to identify angry expressions in young male faces than female faces (Parmley, 2014).

While this research has done a lot to help us understand how the emotions of men and women are perceived differently, there is a distinct lack of understanding concerning how transgender, nonbinary, and other gender-nonconforming people fit into the conversation. My research, which was funded by a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) from the Hamel Center for Undergraduate Research, aimed to fill this gap. I have always been interested in how gender is perceived and expressed, and I was especially interested in pursuing this topic because it perfectly combines my two majors: psychology and women and gender studies. My interest in emotion research was also heavily influenced by my work with the Affect and Social Psychophysiology (ASP) Lab under my mentor, Dr. Jolie Wormwood.

In the field of psychology, a stimulus is anything that causes a reaction in an individual. Stimuli can be sounds, smells, social situations, or, in this case, pictures. A stimulus set is a group of stimuli used in psychological research to measure how people are affected by a certain category of stimuli. Emotion research often uses sets of facial images expressing different emotions. While considering research questions for my project, I realized that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to explore topics related to gender diversity using existing stimulus sets. Therefore my specific research objective was to build a gender-diverse stimulus set of human facial expressions of emotion and to collect preliminary normative ratings of the stimulus set. These ratings are meant to determine how each image tends to be interpreted by others. 

Eight different models pose with different facial expressions of emotion. They are each wearing different colors of clothing, have a variety of hairstyles, piercings, and are different ages.

A series of eight photos of various individuals, each making a different emotion expression.

Limitations of Existing Stimulus Sets

Much of the existing literature on the role of gender in emotion perception is based on a very constrained set of stimuli depicting facial expressions of emotion. Individuals in these stimuli sets are largely, if not exclusively, coded as belonging to a binary gender group (man or woman), which excludes people outside this binary. Moreover, these stimulus sets often remove important aspects of gender presentation, such as hairstyles, makeup, jewelry, and clothing. Models posing emotion expressions in these stimulus sets often all wear the same clothing, have their hair cut short or pulled back so it is not visible, do not wear makeup or jewelry, do not have visible tattoos or facial hair, and so on. These constraints are meant to limit other contextual information that might influence emotion perception, but in so doing reduces the ecological validity of the stimulus sets. In other words, limiting personal and gendered expression in these images means that they do not reflect our reality.

The lack of diversity and expression within existing research leaves a lot of questions unanswered about how perceived gender, gender identity, and gender expression interact to influence emotion perception in the real world. Aspects of gender expression and presentation are ever present in our daily interactions with others and no doubt shape our perceptions of their emotions. To address this, the stimulus set I developed is composed of a gender-diverse group of models, all of whom were instructed to “come as they are” in terms of their appearance. This allowed me to create a set of images that much better represents the many ways gender can be expressed.

Data Collection

This project was completed with the help of my faculty mentors Dr. Jolie Wormwood and Dr. April Bailey, as well as graduate students Kaitlyn McMullen and Alexandra MacVittie from the ASP Lab. For the first phase, we recruited twenty-three individuals (models) via social media using two campaigns: one that was open to anyone and one that specifically targeted transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people to aid in our goal of gender diversity within the stimulus set. These models provided facial photos of themselves expressing eight different emotions (neutral, happy, proud, surprised, sad, angry, afraid, and disgusted). We did not give guidance on how to pose the different emotion expressions. 

One of the models from the study, with long curly hair, a mustache and goatee, wire rimmed glasses, a blue polka dot shirt and gray cardigan, makes eight different emotion expressions. The photos are combined into two rows of four photos.

A model makes eight different emotion expressions. 

Models also provided demographic information, including self-reports of their gender identity, perceived gender presentation, sexual orientation, age, and race/ethnicity. This portion of the research did not qualify as human subjects research, so Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval was not required, and participation was completely voluntary. Additionally, all participants were presented with media release forms and documentation explaining the protections and limits of the models’ privacy to ensure individuals were fully informed about how the photos would be used and gave appropriate permissions. Only photos from people who signed release forms will be included in the final stimulus set.

For the second phase, we separately recruited 102 participants via Prolific.co, an online platform for recruiting and participating in remote research, and received IRB approval. We again recruited participants through two campaigns: one open to anyone and one specifically targeting transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming individuals. Participants in phase two self-reported the same demographic information as the models in phase one. They were asked to view the images collected during the first phase and make four ratings of each image. The questions were as follows:

  • “Which emotion do you think this person is expressing?” Participants answered by selecting one of the eight emotions from a multiple-choice list.
  • “Please rate how intensely the person is expressing the emotion you selected.” Participants answered using a slider going from 1 (not at all intense) to 7 (most intense).
  • “Please drag the cursors below to indicate how masculine and feminine you think the person in the photo looks. Note: The scales are independent of one another (e.g., they could be high on both or low on both; the scales do not need to add to 100). Scales range from 0 ‘Not at all’ to 100 ‘Completely.’” Participants answered using two separate sliders labeled “how feminine?” and “how masculine?”


Data analysis is underway. We have finished preliminary analyses examining differences in perceivers’ accuracy and intensity for different emotion categories, finding significant differences in accuracy based on emotion. Perceivers were most accurate at guessing happiness and least accurate at guessing pride. The impact on the way perceivers rated the intensity of an emotion expression was less pronounced, with most perceivers rating surprise as more intense and a neutral expression as less intense. These findings were presented in depth at the annual meeting of the New England Psychological Association in October 2023 as part of a special session recognizing recipients of Honorary Undergraduate Scholar awards.

I am continuing to grow this stimulus set as part of my honors thesis in the psychology department. My goal is to gather photos from at least sixty individuals. By expanding the number of models in the stimulus set, I will be able to conduct analyses examining how emotion perception differs across models of differing gender identity and presentation. This analysis will be presented at the 2024 UNH Undergraduate Research Conference.


There is very little data on transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people across all areas of psychology, especially when it comes to emotion. My research project is a huge step toward helping us understand the role of gender identity and presentation in emotion perception. I intend to make the created stimulus set freely and publicly available to other researchers, and I hope that it is used as much as possible to increase representation in this area. As a unique emotion expression stimulus set of diverse genders that includes an ecologically valid variety of gender presentations, this stimulus set will enable researchers to ask innovative new questions about the role of gender in emotion perception beyond the gender binary. It will also open doorways for transgender and gender-nonconforming people, a vulnerable population, to be more visible and better understood within psychology, which ideally will lead to more ways to help and protect this particular community.

I have many ideas for possible research questions that this set could be used for. For example, I’d love to examine if trans identity or non-normative gender presentation affect the way emotion expressions are perceived. I’d also love to explore whether labeling a model's gender has an effect on perception of their expressions. The answers to these questions, and others like them, are increasingly relevant to our daily lives with the increased awareness and visibility of gender nonconformity. If we find that certain gender labels, identities, or presentations affect how emotions are perceived, that means that daily interactions with people are being biased by these perceptions. For example, if gender changes the way doctors perceive their patients’ pain, the way a jury perceives a defendant’s remorse, or the way a police officer perceives a citizen’s anger, it could completely change the lives of those involved. These biases have the potential to cause real-world harm, which is why it is so important for us to try to understand them.


It is impossible for me to put into words how thankful I am for all the support I have received throughout this project, but I want to express my profound gratitude for the following people. Dr. Jolie Wormwood, thank you for teaching and guiding me from the very beginning. Your constant belief in me keeps me motivated even when I cannot find that belief in myself. You are the reason I have made it this far. Kaitlyn McMullen, I could not have done any of this without you. It was your research that first sparked the inspiration for this project, and your guidance has been invaluable every step of the way. Thank you for doing a thousand tedious tasks with me and letting me ask you a thousand silly questions; it is more appreciated than you know. Alix Ecker, Tess Reid, Kristen Petagna, Jayda Vazquez, Kyra Woodward, and everyone else in the ASP Lab, thank you for being so supportive and helpful. I am so lucky to have had your knowledge and friendship beside me. Mr. Dana Hamel, Mr. and Mrs. Irving E. Rogers III, Ms. Deborah Rogers Pratt, and Ms. Kristen Butterfield-Ferrell, I cannot thank you enough for your monetary support through the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship that I received from the Hamel Center for Undergraduate Research.  I would also like to extend my thanks to everyone who participated in my research, and allowed me to use their photos. Your faces will provide the field of psychology with valuable information, and my thankfulness for you cannot be overstated. You shared not just your time, but your image and your emotions with me, and I do not take that for granted. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.



Gendron, M., Lindquist, K. A., Barsalou, L., & Barrett, L. F. (2012). Emotion words shape emotion percepts. Emotion, 12(2), 314–325. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0026007

Lindquist, K. A., & Gendron, M. (2013). What’s in a word? language constructs emotion perception. Emotion Review, 5(1), 66–71. https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073912451351

Lindquist, K. A., Gendron, M., Barrett, L. F., & Dickerson, B. C. (2014). Emotion perception, but not affect perception, is impaired with semantic memory loss. Emotion, 14(2), 375–387. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035293

Olderbak, S., Wilhelm, O., Hildebrandt, A., & Quoidbach, J. (2018). Sex differences in facial emotion perception ability across the lifespan. Cognition and Emotion, 33(3), 579–588. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2018.1454403

Parmley, M., & Cunningham, J. G. (2014). She looks sad, but he looks mad: The effects of age, gender, and ambiguity on Emotion Perception. The Journal of Social Psychology, 154(4), 323–338. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.2014.901287

Plant, E. A., Hyde, J. S., Keltner, D., & Devine, P. G. (2000). The gender stereotyping of emotions. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 24(1), 81–92. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.2000.tb01024.x

Sullivan, S., Campbell, A., Hutton, S. B., & Ruffman, T. (2015). What’s good for the Goose is not good for the gander: Age and gender differences in scanning emotion faces. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 72(3), 441–447. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbv033

Thompson, A. E., & Voyer, D. (2014). Sex differences in the ability to recognise non-verbal displays of emotion: A meta-analysis. Cognition and Emotion, 28(7), 1164–1195. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2013.875889


Author and Mentor Bios

Amir Robertson

Amir Robertson, from Milan, New Hampshire will graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor of arts degree in Psychology and Women and Gender Studies. He is also part of the Honors in Major program. Amir did his project with the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) through the Hamel Center for Undergraduate Research and plans to expand on his experience in his honors thesis. Amir initiated this project because of his interest in gender perception and expression and it also happened to be a perfect combination of both his majors. His interest in emotion research was also influenced by his work with the Affect and Social Psychophysiology (ASP) Lab under his mentor, Dr. Jolie Wormwood. Through this experience, Amir discovered how to make data more understandable, to manage his time better, to ask for help often, and that research doesn’t always have to be complex to be meaningful. He enjoyed seeing the different facial expressions and how the visible emotion varied from person to person, but the project became more difficult when coding to collect the face rating data. Despite the struggle, he still learned a lot in the process. Amir’s passion for this project motivated him to submit to Inquiry to share his experience and, in doing so, hopes that it will provide more insight in his field. Following graduation, he hopes to get his PhD in social psychology and continue doing research to spread more awareness about underrepresented groups and individuals in his field. He is determined to broaden the scope of subject pools so that psychology better represents the truth of humanity.

Dr. Jolie Wormwood is the Arthur K. Whitcomb Professor of psychology. Starting at University of New Hampshire in 2018, Dr. Wormwood’s research is broadly interested in the science and psychology of affect and emotion, particularly how they influence our perceptions and decision making, how we infer them in others, and the role of the body in their experience. Amir began volunteering in her lab, the Affect and Social Psychophysiology (ASP) Lab, in Spring 2022, later applying for a SURF under her mentorship in Spring 2023. Dr. Wormwood consistently mentors undergraduate students in the ASP lab, including several SURF recipients, two of whom co-authored an Inquiry article in Spring 2021 on the impact of social media ‘fitspiration’ content on well-being. Amir’s project was her first-time mentoring research where the trainee was trying to recruit from a targeted demographic that is underrepresented at UNH and in NH. She describes this as a learning curve in terms of how to conduct successful outreach to the communities of interest, but it was a valuable experience for everyone involved. Dr. Wormwood has very much enjoyed working with Amir on this project over the past year and hopes to see many other impactful contributions to psychological science from him in the future. She thinks the process of writing and editing an Inquiry article has been enormously beneficial for undergraduate student researchers and will serve them well in the future, saying “you don’t really understand something until you can explain it to anyone.” 


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