Faces in the wild: A naturalistic study of children’s facial expressions in response to an Internet prank

Michael M. Shuster, Linda A. Camras, Adam Grabell, Susan B. Perlman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


There is surprisingly little empirical evidence supporting theoretical and anecdotal claims regarding the spontaneous production of prototypic facial expressions used in numerous emotion recognition studies. Proponents of innate prototypic expressions believe that this lack of evidence may be due to ethical restrictions against presenting powerful elicitors in the lab. The current popularity of internet platforms designed for public sharing of videos allows investigators to shed light on this debate by examining naturally-occurring facial expressions outside the laboratory. An Internet prank (“Scary Maze”) has provided a unique opportunity to observe children reacting to a consistent fear- and surprise-inducing stimulus: The unexpected presentation of a “scary face” during an online maze game. The purpose of this study was to examine children’s facial expressions in this naturalistic setting. Emotion ratings of non-facial behaviour (provided by untrained undergraduates) and anatomically-based facial codes were obtained from 60 videos of children (ages 4–7) found on YouTube. Emotion ratings were highest for fear and surprise. Correspondingly, children displayed more facial expressions of fear and surprise than for other emotions (e.g. anger, joy). These findings provide partial support for the ecological validity of fear and surprise expressions. Still prototypic expressions were produced by fewer than half the children.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)359-366
Number of pages8
JournalCognition and Emotion
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 17 2020


  • Fear
  • YouTube
  • emotional expressions
  • prototypic expressions


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