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Yi-Chia Chen, Hannah Raila, Brian Scholl; Sad minds seeking happy stimuli: Trait happiness predicts how quickly happy faces reach visual awareness. Journal of Vision 2017;17(10):1210. doi: 10.1167/17.10.1210.
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The light entering the eyes conveys far more information than can possibly be promoted into visual awareness in any given moment, and so vision is inherently selective. We have learned a great deal about this selection in recent years, especially about the factors that influence whether (and how quickly) we are likely to consciously perceive various sorts of stimuli. At the same time, however, we know much less about how patterns of unconscious, automatic selection may differ across people. Here we explored such individual differences in the context of an especially salient aspect of our lives: trait happiness. People differ widely in how happy they generally are (beyond their temporary state moods), and we asked about whether this factor might interact with how quickly happy vs. unhappy information reaches visual awareness. We showed people happy, sad, fearful, and neutral faces that were rendered invisible using continuous flash suppression (CFS), and then we measured how quickly such faces broke through CFS into awareness. Several different subsequent measures of trait happiness and life satisfaction (but not measures of state mood) were reliably correlated with performance: the less happy observers were (controlling for state mood), the faster they became aware of happy faces (using neutral faces as a baseline). Critically, this pattern occurred only for happy faces, and not sad or fearful faces — and a monocular control experiment ruled out response-based explanations that did not involve visual awareness, per se. People who are less happy may thus automatically and unconsciously prioritize happy stimuli, perhaps because of the ability of those stimuli to modulate their emotional experience. In this way, people who are differentially happy may literally experience different visual worlds even when in the same environment — such that the study of perception may contribute to affective science.
Meeting abstract presented at VSS 2017
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