Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

The Effectiveness of a Gaze Cue Depends on the Facial Expression of Emotion: Evidence from Simultaneous Competing Cues

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

The Effectiveness of a Gaze Cue Depends on the Facial Expression of Emotion: Evidence from Simultaneous Competing Cues

Article excerpt

The gaze of a fearful face should be a particularly effective cue to attention; it allows one to rapidly allocate attention to potential threats. Prior data from investigations of this issue have been mixed. We report a novel method in which the gazes of two faces simultaneously cued different directions. Across trials, the emotion expressed by each face varied between happy, neutral, and fearful. Results showed that attention followed a fearful gaze when it competed with a neutral gaze but did not consistently follow a happy gaze when it competed with a neutral gaze. These results suggest that fear moderates the effectiveness of gaze cuing, and we present a parsimonious account that reconciles previously inconsistent data. We also found that presenting a fearful and a happy face simultaneously eliminates this effect, suggesting that emotional expressions interact in ways that may be important for understanding how emotional stimuli influence attention in more complex environments.

Attention is both limited in capacity (Pashler, 1988) and necessary for the explicit representation of objects (Becker & Pashler, 2002; Rensink, O'Regan, & Clark, 1997). Thus, people may use a number of cues to help ensure that attention is allocated to relevant locations, rather than being squandered on the irrelevant. It is clear that there are numerous sources of both low-level and highlevel information that can influence the allocation of attention. For instance, there is evidence that attention is efficiently allocated to visually salient items (Itti & Koch, 2000) and to anomalous (Becker, Pashler, & Lubin, 2007) and new objects (Brockmole & Henderson, 2005) within a scene and can be guided by implicit memory for consistent or repeating scene structure (Chun & Jiang, 1998) and scene-specific memory for a scene (Brockmole & Henderson, 2006). Of particular interest to the present investigation is how emotional and social information influence the allocation of attention.

Cues conveyed by others may be a rich source of information that can be used to direct attention toward interesting or relevant objects in the environment. Consistent with this view, an extensive literature suggests that people are very sensitive to where others are looking and rapidly and reflexively orient attention toward the place where the gaze of another is directed (see Frischen, Bayliss, & Tipper, 2007, for a recent review). In addition, this ability develops early in childhood (Hood, Willen, & Driver, 1998) and has been suggested to underpin more complex forms of social communication, such as vocabulary learning (Morales, Mundy, & Rojas, 1998) and theory of mind (Charman et al., 2000). As a result, it has been suggested that eye gaze may be a particularly strong cue to attention (Kuhn & Kingstone, 2009).

Research also indicates that facial expressions of emotion are evaluated rapidly (Eimer & Holmes, 2002), and this early evaluation can guide attention toward faces that indicate potential threat. For example, during a search task, people find fearful facial expressions more quickly than they do positive faces (Eastwood, Smilek, & Merikle, 2001; Hansen & Hansen, 1988; Öhman, Lundqvist, & Esteves, 2001; but see Frewen, Dozois, Joanisse, & Neufeld, 2008).

The finding that both eye gaze and facial expression of emotion are capable of influencing the allocation of attention raises the possibility that these two factors interact, so that the gaze of a fearful face may be an especially strong cue to attention. To investigate this issue, researchers have typically used a modified Posner (1980) cuing paradigm in which a single emotional face is presented at fixation prior to the appearance of a target that participants must rapidly detect or discriminate. The face gazes either at the location where the target is due to appear (a valid cue) or in the opposite direction (an invalid cue). …

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