August 2023
Volume 23, Issue 9
Open Access
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   August 2023
Emotion recognition, not attentional capture, drives visual search asymmetries to emotional expressions
Author Affiliations
  • Sjoerd Stuit
    Utrecht University
  • Alejandra Pardo Sanchez
    University College Utrecht
  • David Terburg
    Utrecht University
Journal of Vision August 2023, Vol.23, 5059. doi:
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      Sjoerd Stuit, Alejandra Pardo Sanchez, David Terburg; Emotion recognition, not attentional capture, drives visual search asymmetries to emotional expressions. Journal of Vision 2023;23(9):5059.

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

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Emotional facial expressions provide important communication signals that indicate a sender’s intent and emotional state. As such, it is unsurprising that expressions are thought to attract attention automatically and that the magnitude of such effects depend on the type of expression. However, experiments concerning which expression attracts the most attention show inconsistent results and recent evidence suggests the attentional effect is not related to the emotional content of the expression but rather to its basic visual properties. Using a visual search experiment, we investigated if search behavior is affected by the emotional content of a target expression and if the task instruction, concerning what expression to look for, affected the search. Preliminary results show that overall reaction times depend on the emotion searched for, with happy faces found faster than angry faces among distractors containing other expressions. However, this effect emerges after the target is first fixated on, reflecting the time to decide the face was the target. The search itself, the time required to fixate on the target, was independent of emotional content. This shows that search asymmetries may not reflect differential attention based on emotional content. To better understand the search behavior, we pinpointed the visual features of the distractor that relate to attentional capture and disengagement. There we show that what captures attention and affects disengagement are both unaffected by the emotion searched for, do not reflect the properties that define either happy or angry expressions, and are best explained by the properties that separate all expression types. Taken together, our results suggest that, in the context of a happy superiority effect, search behavior is independent of the emotional content of the target, shows no attentional bias toward either happy or angry faces and that search asymmetries are more likely to reflect emotion recognition than attentional capture.


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