Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Automatic Identification of Familiar Faces

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Automatic Identification of Familiar Faces

Article excerpt

Published online: 8 June 2013

# Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract Much research has suggested that facial identification has some characteristics of automaticity, in that it is rapid, nonconscious, and mandatory. However, little research has tested whether it can occur even if attention is already devoted to the demanding central processes of another task. In the present study, we addressed this type of automaticity using the psychological refractory period paradigm. In Experiments 1 and 2, participants successfully identified familiar faces, even while they were engaged with another task, indicating the automaticity of familiar-face identification. In Experiments 3 and 4, however, participants could not identify unfamiliar faces as automatically as they could identify the familiar faces. We concluded that automatic face identification is possible, but dependent on prior familiarity.

Keywords Face identification . Automaticity . Psychological refractory period paradigm

Human faces provide information critical to our survival and reproductive fitness, such as identity, emotion, eye gaze, and attractiveness. Facial identity allows us to differentiate be- tween friends and foes, facial emotion provides a cue to predict potential threat from others, eye gaze tells us where the person is attending (Langton, Watt, & Bruce, 2000), and facial attractiveness signals genetic quality and phenotypic condition (Grammer, Fink, Møller, & Thornhill, 2003). Given the high importance of facial information processing, it has been considered a strong candidate for automaticity, despite a high degree of computational complexity (for a review, see Palermo & Rhodes, 2007). Furthermore, facial information processing is extensively practiced (e.g., we identify faces of friends and colleagues many times per day), which might also promote automatic processing (Maquestiaux, Laguë-Beauvais, Ruthruff, & Bherer, 2008).

In their seminal work, Schneider and Shiffrin (1977) proposed that an automatic process has the following prop- erties: It (1) occurs relatively rapidly, (2) proceeds without conscious awareness, and (3) is mandatorily initiated when- ever a triggering stimulus is present (see also Shiffrin & Schneider, 1977). More directly related to the present study, they also proposed that an automatic process should require few or no attentional resources. In other words, an automatic mental process is not impeded by other demanding mental processes occurring simultaneously (see also Norman & Bobrow, 1975; Schneider & Fisk, 1982). The present re- search focuses on whether facial identification meets the latter criterion for automaticity.

Previous studies have shown that facial identification has some of the characteristics of automaticity. For example, rapid facial identification is supported by the findings that face- specific magnetoencephalography responses occur only 170 ms after face onset, and that this early activity is correlated with successful facial identification (Liu, Harris, & Kanwisher, 2002). Studies examining the skin conductance response of prosopagnosic patients have revealed that such patients can successfully identify familiar faces, despite the absence of conscious awareness (Bauer, 1984; see also Tranel & Damasio, 1985). Similarly, normal participants are able to preconsciously identify familiar faces that are presented briefly (17 ms) and followed by a backward mask (Stone & Valentine, 2004). In addition, facial stimuli have been shown to produce negative priming effec ts-that is, impaired recognition of a target that was recently ignored as a distractor-even when there was no incentive to process them, suggesting the mandatoriness of facial identification (Khurana, Smith, & Baker, 2000; see also Boutet, Gentes-Hawn, & Chaudhuri, 2002; Lavie, Ro, & Russell, 2003).

Despite this evidence that facial identification shows various signs of automaticity, it has remained unclear from previous studies whether facial identification can occur even if attention is already devoted to the demanding central processes of another task. …

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