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Bahador Bahrami, Sara Ajina, Spas Getov, Lorna Stewart, Alex Todorov, Geraint Rees; Observer- and stimulus-specific effects in unconscious evaluation of faces on social dimensions. Journal of Vision 2011;11(11):562. doi: 10.1167/11.11.562.
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It has been proposed that two major axes, dominance and trustworthiness, characterise the social dimensions of face evaluation. Whether evaluation of faces on these social dimensions is restricted to conscious appraisal or happens at a preconscious level is unknown. If they exist, such preconsciously perceived social labels might be entirely stimulus-specific, arising from physical characteristics of face structure. Alternatively, they may be interpretations arising from interactions between the stimuli and observer-specific traits. Monocularly viewed faces that varied independently along two social dimensions of trust and dominance were rendered invisible by continuous flash suppression (CFS) by presenting a flashing pattern to the other eye. Participants pressed a button as soon as they saw the face emerge from suppression to indicate whether the previously hidden face was located slightly to the left or right of central fixation. Time-to-emerge (T2E) was defined as the time taken for the face to emerge through CFS to be correctly localized. T2E was significantly longer for dominant and untrustworthy versus neutral faces. Two control experiments showed these findings were robust to face inversion and could not reflect delayed motor responses to conscious faces. These results demonstrate that evaluation of social facial dimensions extends to a preconscious level and is stimulus-specific. We next investigated whether the variability in T2E across participants could be explained by personality traits. Participants completed 3 validated questionnaires: (1) a fear of negative evaluation" scale that quantified social anxiety; (2) a propensity to trust scale and (3) a submissive behaviour scale. The difference in T2E for untrustworthy versus neutral faces was negatively correlated with self-reported propensity to trust. In contrast, the difference in T2E for dominance versus neutral faces was positively correlated with submissive behaviour. We conclude that preconscious evaluation of social dimensions arises from interactions between stimulus features and observer-specific personality traits.
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