Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Better the Devil You Know? Nonconscious Processing of Identity and Affect of Famous Faces

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Better the Devil You Know? Nonconscious Processing of Identity and Affect of Famous Faces

Article excerpt

The nonconscious recognition of facial identity was investigated in two experiments featuring brief (17-msec) masked stimulus presentation to prevent conscious recognition. Faces were presented in simultaneous pairs of one famous face and one unfamiliar face, and participants attempted to select the famous face. Subsequently, participants rated the famous persons as "good" or "evil" (Experiment 1) or liked or disliked (Experiment 2). In Experiments 1 and 2, responses were less accurate to faces of persons rated evil/disliked than to faces of persons rated good/liked, and faces of persons rated evil/disliked were selected significantly below chance. Experiment 2 showed the effect in a within-items analysis: A famous face was selected less often by participants who disliked the person than by participants who liked the person, and the former were selected below chance accuracy. The within-items analysis rules out possible confounding factors based on variations in physical characteristics of the stimulus faces and confirms that the effects are due to participants' attitudes toward the famous persons. The results suggest that facial identity is recognized preconsciously, and that responses may be based on affect rather than familiarity.

There is considerable evidence that facial expressions can be detected preconsciously and can influence psychophysiological and behavioral responses without awareness (e.g., Dimberg & Öhman, 1996; Dimberg, Thunberg, & Elmehed, 2000; Johnsen & Hugdahl, 1991, 1993; Mogg & Bradley, 1999; Murphy & Zajonc, 1993; Niedenthal, 1990; Ohman, Esteves, & Scares, 1995; Saban & Hugdahl, 1999; Whalen et al., 1998; Wong, Shevrin, & Williams, 1994; see Robinson, 1998, for a review). In all of these studies, conscious awareness was prevented by presenting masked faces for very brief exposure duration, using target-to-mask stimulus onset asynchrony (SOA) of less than 35 msec. The absence of awareness was verified by chance performance in twoalternative forced choice tasks on stimuli presented under conditions similar to the experiment tasks.

The question arises of whether facial identities, like facial expressions, can be detected without conscious awareness. While there is a strong body of evidence supporting covert face recognition in prosopagnosia (e.g., Young, 1998, offers an extensive review), there is less empirical support for the nonconscious recognition of facial identity by neurologically intact participants. ElHs, Young, and Koenken (1993) and Morrison, Bruce, and Burton (2000) claim to have demonstrated nonconscious perception of facial identity, but it is unclear from the methodology that conscious recognition was entirely absent from exposure duration in excess of 50 msec (see Stone, Valentine, & Davis, 2001, for a critique of their methods).

Stone et al. (2001, Experiment 1) reported that skin conductance responses to consciously unrecognized masked 17-msec faces were higher to the faces of famous persons subsequently rated "good" than to the faces of persons rated "evil," but did not distinguish between the faces of famous and unfamiliar persons (responses tended to be higher to "good" faces than to unfamiliar faces, but tended to be lower to "evil" faces than to unfamiliar faces). Conversely, when faces were exposed for 200 msec, a duration that permits conscious recognition, there was an effect of familiarity but no effect of valence: Skin conductance responses were higher to famous faces than to unfamiliar faces with no difference between "good" and "evil" faces. (Responses were above chance accuracy in a two-alternative forced choice of good or evil to masked 17-msec famous faces that were not consciously recognized (Experiment 3). It appears that when famous faces are perceived nonconsciously, responses are based on affective valence but not based on familiarity per se.

The model of face recognition proposed by Breen, Caine, and Coltheart (2000) offers an explanation. …

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