Conversational eyebrow frowns facilitate question identification: An online study using virtual avatars

Nota, N., Trujillo, J. P., & Holler, J. (2023). Conversational eyebrow frowns facilitate question identification: An online study using virtual avatars. Cognitive Science, 47(12): e13392. doi:10.1111/cogs.13392.
Conversation is a time-pressured environment. Recognizing a social action (the ‘‘speech act,’’ such as a question requesting information) early is crucial in conversation to quickly understand the intended message and plan a timely response. Fast turns between interlocutors are especially relevant for responses to questions since a long gap may be meaningful by itself. Human language is multimodal, involving speech as well as visual signals from the body, including the face. But little is known about how conversational facial signals contribute to the communication of social actions. Some of the most prominent facial signals in conversation are eyebrow movements. Previous studies found links between eyebrow movements and questions, suggesting that these facial signals could contribute to the rapid recognition of questions. Therefore, we aimed to investigate whether early eyebrow movements (eyebrow frown or raise vs. no eyebrow movement) facilitate question identification. Participants were instructed to view videos of avatars where the presence of eyebrow movements accompanying questions was manipulated. Their task was to indicate whether the utterance was a question or a statement as accurately and quickly as possible. Data were collected using the online testing platform Gorilla. Results showed higher accuracies and faster response times for questions with eyebrow frowns, suggesting a facilitative role of eyebrow frowns for question identification. This means that facial signals can critically contribute to the communication of social actions in conversation by signaling social action-specific visual information and providing visual cues to speakers’ intentions.
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