The Face in the Crowd Effect Unconfounded: Happy Faces, Not Angry Faces, Are More Efficiently Detected in Single- and Multiple-Target Visual Search Tasks

Department of Psychology, Arizona State University, AZ, USA.
Journal of Experimental Psychology General (Impact Factor: 5.5). 07/2011; 140(4):637-59. DOI: 10.1037/a0024060
Source: PubMed


Is it easier to detect angry or happy facial expressions in crowds of faces? The present studies used several variations of the visual search task to assess whether people selectively attend to expressive faces. Contrary to widely cited studies (e.g., Öhman, Lundqvist, & Esteves, 2001) that suggest angry faces "pop out" of crowds, our review of the literature found inconsistent evidence for the effect and suggested that low-level visual confounds could not be ruled out as the driving force behind the anger superiority effect. We then conducted 7 experiments, carefully designed to eliminate many of the confounding variables present in past demonstrations. These experiments showed no evidence that angry faces popped out of crowds or even that they were efficiently detected. These experiments instead revealed a search asymmetry favoring happy faces. Moreover, in contrast to most previous studies, the happiness superiority effect was shown to be robust even when obvious perceptual confounds--like the contrast of white exposed teeth that are typically displayed in smiling faces--were eliminated in the happy targets. Rather than attribute this effect to the existence of innate happiness detectors, we speculate that the human expression of happiness has evolved to be more visually discriminable because its communicative intent is less ambiguous than other facial expressions.

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Available from: D. Vaughn Becker, Nov 21, 2014
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    • "On the other hand, there are theories suggesting that men tend to show negative emotions, particularly anger, more than women because of the association with their protective role and competitiveness (Grossman and Wood, 1993; Brody and Hall, 2000; Plant et al., 2000; Fischer et al., 2004). A huge body of empirical evidence support this angry-male and happy-female advantage in terms of perception (Goos and Silverman, 2002; Hess et al., 2004, 2009; Becker et al., 2007; Pixton, 2011), detection (Becker et al., 2007; Aguado et al., 2009; Kenrick et al., 2010; Amado et al., 2011; but see Becker et al., 2011), expression (Kring, 2000; Fischer et al., 2004), and reaction toward (Dimberg and Öhman, 1996) emotional faces. Generally, individuals tend to express, and are more accurate and faster in responding to angry-male and happy-female faces than other facial expressions. "
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    • "The pattern of results on non-target trials differed between Experiments 3a and 3b, suggesting that the particular stimulus sets may influence performance not only when used as emotional target faces, but also when used as the neutral non-target faces. The difference on nontarget trials between the angry and happy search tasks in Experiment 3b also indicates that distractor-rejection differs as a function of the searched-for emotional expression and the particular stimulus set employed (e.g., S.I. Becker et al., 2011). "
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    ABSTRACT: Prior reports of preferential detection of emotional expressions in visual search have yielded inconsistent results, even for face stimuli that avoid obvious expression-related perceptual confounds. The current study investigated inconsistent reports of anger and happiness superiority effects using face stimuli drawn from the same database. Experiment 1 excluded procedural differences as a potential factor, replicating a happiness superiority effect in a procedure that previously yielded an anger superiority effect. Experiments 2a and 2b confirmed that image colour or poser gender did not account for prior inconsistent findings. Experiments 3a and 3b identified stimulus set as the critical variable, revealing happiness or anger superiority effects for two partially overlapping sets of face stimuli. The current results highlight the critical role of stimulus selection for the observation of happiness or anger superiority effects in visual search even for face stimuli that avoid obvious expression related perceptual confounds and are drawn from a single database.
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    • "It is important to note that storage in WM is limited (e.g., Cowan, 2001); this bottleneck imposes constraints on threat attunement that are not present at other processing stages that do not have such constraints, like early perception or long-term memory. We predicted a general attunement to anger but, following previous work (e.g., Miller et al., 2010; Becker, Mortensen, et al., 2011), also predicted that other cues to threat—particularly target sex—would moderate the effect. Moreover, given that WM is a limited capacity resource, anger vigilance may operate at the expense of performance with less threatening faces. "
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    ABSTRACT: Working memory (WM) theoretically affords the ability to privilege social threats and opportunities over other more mundane information, but few experiments have sought support for this contention. Using a functional logic, we predicted that threatening faces are likely to elicit encoding benefits in WM. Critically, however, threat depends on both the capacities and inclinations of the potential aggressor and the possible responses available to the perceiver. Two experiments demonstrate that participants more efficiently scan memory for angry facial expressions, but only when the faces also bear other cues that are heuristically associated with threat: masculinity in Study 1 and outgroup status in Study 2. Moreover, male participants showed robust speed and accuracy benefits, whereas female participants showed somewhat weaker effects, and only when threat was clearly expressed. Overall results indicate that working memory for faces depends on the accessibility of self-protective goals and on the functional relevance of other social attributes of the face.
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