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Human interaction is fundamental to most aspects of life, and the ways in which we interact with others is ever-changing. People constantly interact with other social agents - often with real humans, but also increasingly frequently with virtual or artificial representations of humans through video displays, digital avatars, and emerging technologies like social robots. My research program aims to better understand how social agents are perceived and evaluated in real and virtual environments.


My research focuses largely on the color appearance of human and human-like faces. I describe some of my recent, ongoing, and prospective research topics below.

Some of the main themes and research questions I focus on include:

  • Measurement of skin color. What are the temporal, spatial, colorimetric, and spectral characteristics of skin as its color changes subtly over a brief period of time? How can we address some specific challenges that arise when trying to accurately measure facial color?

  • How do social-cognitive mechanisms and the visual system work to detect and perceive facial color?

  • How do visual features (colorimetric, color heterogeneity, textual details, transparency) impact the appearance (preference, realism, social inferences like emotion) of social agents?

  • Do these visual features influence appearance and social evaluations differently depending on the type of social agent (e.g., Do people prefer different characteristics of facial appearance for both real humans and social robots? What are the limitations of imparting human-like visual expressions of emotion onto social robots)?

  • How can color be used as a tool to augment virtual communication of social states (e.g., emotion) in artificial social agents (e.g., in emojis, avatars, social robots)?

  • How do people evaluate appearance of social agents in virtual environments (AR, VR)?

  • What are the tradeoffs between preferred and realistic appearance when interacting with social agents (e.g., which realistic visual features do people want to exclude or ameliorate when interacting with artificial social agents)?

  • Are there discrepancies between user- vs. other- centered appearance approaches (e.g., do people evaluate representations of themselves differently than of others)?

  • How do different lighting environments influence evaluations of artwork that contain human faces?

Featured Publications

Social perception of facial color appearance for human trichromatic versus dichromatic color vision

Thorstenson, C. A., Pazda, A. D., & Elliot, A. J. (2020)

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin


Humans' typical color vision is trichromatic, because our eyes have 3 distinct light-sensitive receptors, called cones. Scholars have suggested that we evolved trichromacy in order to distinguish important types of objects, from foods to faces. We found evidence that trichromacy is particularly important for distinguishing social states (emotion, healthiness, attractiveness) from faces. 


Christopher Thorstenson

Social Color Perception Researcher