Prof. Haberman’s Research on Ensemble Perception Explains How We Read a Crowd

Speaking in front of a large group can be exciting or nerve-wracking depending on how one reads the faces in the crowd to determine if they are happy, sad, in love with the presentation, or maybe not so much. Despite the overwhelming amount of visual information available, Dr. Jason Haberman’s research shows that people are quite adept at picking up on a crowd’s general mood, that is, perceiving the average expression.

Haberman, an assistant professor of psychology and a member of the neuroscience program at Rhodes, has focused his research on this phenomenon, known as ensemble perception. During his undergraduate years at Colgate University, he double majored in music and neuroscience. He discovered his passion for visual cognition during his graduate studies at the University of California, Davis, and continued his training as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. Haberman started his work in ensemble perception shortly after joining Dr. David Whitney’s laboratory. Their work shows that the visual system can extract averages across a host of visual domains, from seeing the average size of a set of dots to seeing the average emotion of a crowd of faces. 

“Since it is possible to get the average size of dots, we set out to see if we could also perceive the average emotion of a group of faces. To our surprise, people were really good at seeing the average emotion [such as happiness or distress] and they were really bad at seeing any one of the individuals,” says Haberman.  

In current versions of their ensemble experiments, participants are shown crowds of faces varying in expression. Participants must then adjust another face to match the average expression of the crowd they just saw. 

Haberman’s work is relevant to pedagogical practices. “Imagine you’re an instructor and you walk into a classroom to speak on some difficult concept. You can readily see the average confusability on your students’ faces. You can think, they’re just not getting it and modify your lecture accordingly. There’s no need for verbal feedback. You get this information very easily and very quickly.”

His research is not done alone as he has formed a small research team of six students, who will be presenting their research at the Vision Science Society Conference in Florida this May. Ritika Mazumder, a junior neuroscience major, has been doing research with Haberman for over a year and remarks on the dynamic of their lab group, “We really are a team, and even more so, we are friends. We are the ones to schedule lab-bonding time now, just to have an excuse to hang out. Even as members have come and gone, our team continues to form a stronger bond that promotes a more stimulating and supportive work environment.”

Haberman’s latest article titled “Mixed Emotions: Sensitivity to Facial Variance in a Crowd of Faces” with Pegan Lee of UC San Francisco and David Whitney of UC Berkeley is published in the Journal of Vision. More on Haberman’s research may be found at jasonmarchaberman.wordpress.com

By Lizzie Choy ’17