The Compositionality of Facial Expressions

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1 Scopus citations


The principle of compositionality, an important postulation in language and cognition research, posits that the meaning of a complex expression is determined by the meaning of its constituting parts and the operation performed on those parts. Here, we provide strong evidence that this principle plays a significant role also in interpreting facial expressions. In three studies in which perceivers interpreted sequences of two emotional facial expression images, we show that the composite meaning of facial expressions results from the meaning of its constituting expressions and an algebraic operation performed on those expressions. Our study offers a systematic account as to how the meaning of facial expressions (single and sequences) are being formed and perceived. In a broader context, our results raise the possibility that the principle of compositionality may apply to human communication modalities beyond spoken language, whereby a minimal number of components are expanded to a much greater number of meanings.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)172-186
Number of pages15
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2022


  • emotions
  • facial expressions
  • semantic compositionality
  • vector representation
  • word embedding

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Sensory Systems
  • Ophthalmology


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