August 2009
Volume 9, Issue 8
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   August 2009
Mixed emotions: Holistic and analytic perception of facial expressions
Author Affiliations
  • Sean Butler
    Department of Psychology, University of Victoria, Canada
  • James Tanaka
    Department of Psychology, University of Victoria, Canada
  • Martha Kaiser
    Department of Psychology, Rutgers University
  • Richard Le Grand
    Department of Psychology, Kwantlen Polytechnic University
Journal of Vision August 2009, Vol.9, 496. doi:
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      Sean Butler, James Tanaka, Martha Kaiser, Richard Le Grand; Mixed emotions: Holistic and analytic perception of facial expressions. Journal of Vision 2009;9(8):496. doi:

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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It is well established that recognition of facial identity relies more on Holistic Processing (HP) of the entire face than analytic processing of its constituent parts. HP of faces has been measured in experiments where participants selectively attend to the top or bottom half of faces in a same-different judgment task and either the alignment of face halves or the congruency of information across face halves are manipulated (e.g., the composite face effect, Young, Hellawell, & Hay, 1987).

In contrast to identity, it is unclear whether the identification of facial expressions is holistic or analytic, as studies to date have produced conflicting results. In part this may be due to a lack of appropriate baseline measures. To measure processing of emotional expressions, we created two sets of composite faces in which top and bottom face halves displayed incongruent (e.g., angry top/happy bottom) or congruent (e.g., happy top/happy bottom) expressions and two baseline sets where expression halves were paired with halves of neutral expression, or presented in isolation. In Experiment 1, participants were asked to report the expression in the cued half of the face and ignore information in the uncued half. Relative to baseline conditions, it was found that in an incongruent expression, conflicting information in the uncued half interfered with speed and accuracy of identifying the cued half. However, in a congruent face, the uncued portion had no effect on speed and accuracy. A manipulation of the exposure duration in Experiment 2 revealed that while stimuli were equivalently identified at brief exposures, this pattern of holistic interference without facilitation emerged by 60 ms.

Collectively, the results suggest that holistic face processes are engaged given both a) conflicting or ambiguous facial expression information and b) a minimum amount of processing. In contrast, unambiguous or briefly viewed facial expressions are processed analytically.

Butler, S. Tanaka, J. Kaiser, M. Le Grand, R. (2009). Mixed emotions: Holistic and analytic perception of facial expressions [Abstract]. Journal of Vision, 9(8):496, 496a,, doi:10.1167/9.8.496. [CrossRef]
 National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the James S. McDonnell Foundation, and the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center (NSF Grant #SBE-0542013).

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