Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Second-Order Relational Face Processing Is Applied to Faces of Different Race and Photographic Contrast

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Second-Order Relational Face Processing Is Applied to Faces of Different Race and Photographic Contrast

Article excerpt

A large body of research suggests that faces are processed by a specialized mechanism within the human visual system. This specialized mechanism is made up of subprocesses (Maurer, LeGrand, & Mondloch, 2002). One subprocess, called second- order relational processing, analyzes the metric distances between face parts. Importantly, it is well established that other-race faces and contrast-reversed faces are associated with impaired performance on numerous face processing tasks. Here, we investigated the specificity of second-order relational processing by testing how this process is applied to faces of different race and photographic contrast. Participants completed a feature displacement discrimination task, directly measuring the sensitivity to second-order relations between face parts. Across three experiments we show that, despite absolute differences in sensitivity in some conditions, inversion impaired performance in all conditions. The presence of robust inversion effects for all faces suggests that second-order relational processing can be applied to faces of different race and photographic contrast.

Keywords: face perception, second-order relational face processing, contrast effect, other-race effect

Humans are able to quickly and accurately recognise familiar faces and, compared to other objects, humans are more likely to identify faces at the subordinate level (i.e., identify individuals; Tanaka & Taylor, 1991). A special interest in faces appears to be innate (Goren, Sarty, & Wu, 1975; Johnson, Dziurawiec, Ellis, & Morton, 1991), and the robust face processing capabilities of the visual system often lead to misidentification of faces in ambiguous visual patterns such as clouds (i.e., Pareidolia; see Melcher & Bacci, 2008). These types of findings suggest that there are specialized processes that analyse faces in the human visual system.

One of the earliest and most robust pieces of evidence for a specialized face processing comes from behavioural research on the "face inversion effect." Yin (1969) found that inversion impairs memory for faces more than memory for nonface objects. The presence of a larger inversion effect for faces compared to other nonface objects suggests that the cognitive processes underlying face recognition are distinct from those that underlie the processing of objects in general (see Valentine, 1988, for a review of face inversion and additional interpretations).

Face Processing: A Distinction Between Featural Versus Configurai Processing

Though many investigators agree that face processing is served by a specialized mechanism (however, see Tarr & Gauthier, 2000 for discussions of the role visual expertise plays in the development of face processing), there is still little consensus about the nature of this processing. It has been suggested that there are two main types of face processing: "featural" and "configurai." Featural processing (also known as piecemeal, local, part-based, component, or analytic; cf. Peterson & Rhodes, 2003) analyzes faceparts (e.g., the eyes, nose, and mouth), and represents them independently within the visual system. Conversely, configurai processing (or global, holistic or relational processing; cf. Peterson & Rhodes, 2003) analyzes the configuration among those features and uses these to individuate different exemplars.

Evidence has accumulated supporting the distinction between featural and configurai processing. For instance, Bartlett and Searcy (1993) demonstrated that extreme changes to the configuration of faces (e.g., drastically increasing or decreasing the distance between the eyes) makes them look grotesque when upright, but not when inverted. However, drastic changes to the features (e.g., the discoloration of the eyes or the teeth) makes faces seem grotesque when both upright and inverted. This suggests that inverting the face affects configurai processing to a greater extent than featural processing. …

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