Things are looking up: Vertical eye gaze in the environment affects perceptions of emotional valence in sad faces


Successful social interactions depend on the ability to quickly evaluate emotional facial expressions. Research has shown that head orientation and eye gaze are informative affective signals. Across four experiments, we explored a novel eye-gaze cue grounded in a consideration of English spatial metaphors, where up connotes positive feelings ("I'm flying high") and down connotes negative feelings ("I'm feeling low"). Participants either rated the valence of or categorised a set of sad and happy faces gazing in different directions along the vertical axis. We expected to find a spatial-valence congruency effect, where valence ratings and reaction times would be moderated by whether or not the face was gazing in a metaphor-consistent direction. The results partially supported this hypothesis: sad faces gazing upwards (as opposed to downwards) were rated as happier or more positive (Experiments 1 and 2) and classified slower (Experiments 3 and 4). This was true whether the looking direction was cued by eye gaze in front-view faces (Experiment 1) or by the orientation of profile faces (Experiments 2-4). In addition, this spatial-valence congruency effect was only reliable in the environmental frame of reference (Experiment 4). We found little evidence for a comparable effect of gaze direction on judgements of happy faces, suggesting that eye gaze along the vertical axis may differentially affect judgements of approach and avoidance-related emotional expressions. This has implications for the inferences scholars draw about underlying cognitive representations from observations of conventional metaphorical language.


SAGE Publications

Publication Date


Publication Title

Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology



Document Type




Emotional face processing, Spatial valence congruency effect, Metaphor, Spatial reference frames, Face perception