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Research reveals the truth behind the evil eyebrows of a cartoon villain

New research from the University of Warwick could explain why the evil eyebrows and pointy chin of a cartoon villain make our ‘threat’ instinct kick in.

Psychologists have found that a downward pointing triangle can be perceived to carry threat just like a negative face in a crowd.

In a paper published in Emotion, a journal of the American Psychological Association, Dr Derrick Watson and Dr Elisabeth Blagrove have carried out a series of experiments with volunteers to find out if simple geometric shapes can convey positive or negative emotions.

Previous research by these scientists showed that people could pick out a negative face in a crowd more quickly than a positive or neutral face and also that it was difficult to ignore faces in general. The researchers carried out a series of experiments asking volunteers to respond to computer-generated images. They were shown positive, negative and neutral faces, and triangles facing upwards, downwards, inward and outward. This latest study shows that downward triangles are detected just as quickly as a negative face.

Dr Watson said: “We know from previous studies that simple geometric shapes are effective at capturing or guiding attention, particularly if these shapes carry the features present within negative or positive faces.”

“Our study shows that downward pointing triangles in particular convey negative emotions and we can pick up on them quickly and perceive them as a threat.”

Dr Blagrove added: “If we look at cartoon characters, the classic baddie will often be drawn with the evil eyebrows that come to a downward point in the middle. This could go some way to explain why we associate the downward pointing triangle with negative faces. These shapes correspond with our own facial features and we are unconsciously making that link.”

Notes to editors

The Joker is a good example of the classic cartoon baddie, for example, (not for publication)

‘Negative Triangles: Simple Geometric Shapes Convey Emotional Valence’, Derrick G Watson, Elisabeth Blagrove, Chesney Evans and Lucy Moore. Emotion, 2012, Vol 12, No.1 18-22

To speak to Dr Watson please call 02476 522763 or to speak to Dr Blagrove call 02476 150232. To see a copy of the paper please contact Kelly Parkes-Harrison, Press and Communications Manager, University of Warwick,, 07824 540863, 02476 150868 or Luke Hamer, Assistant Press Officer, 02476 575601, 07824 541142,