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How are Emotion Expression Honest Signals?

Emotion expressions can be understood as a form of social communication between a sender and a receiver: a signal. A large body of research using evolutionary game theory and animal behavior studies has examined how signals remain honest when conflicts of interest exist between senders and receivers (i.e., when a sender could benefit by sending a false signal at the expense of the receiver). A key insight emerging this research is that, when sender and receiver interests are not entirely aligned, there must be costs associated with signaling falsely that outweigh the benefits; otherwise cheating would become rampant and the signal would become unreliable. In current research led by Conor Steckler, we are applying this logic to emotion expressions and testing whether false or unwarranted signals of pride (an emotion expression that is easily faked yet provides numerous benefits for senders) are costly. Using a real world micro-lending charity, we have found that men who display pride in the unwarranted context of asking for help are penalized, in the form of reduced financial aid received (paper currently under review). In ongoing work, we are testing whether there are other contexts in which unwarranted pride displays are costly, and how costly signaling theory might help us understand cultural differences in emotion recognition.