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Cogn Emot. 2011 Jun;25(4):573-84. doi: 10.1080/02699931.2010.500159.

Visual search for schematic emotional faces risks perceptual confound.

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University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


Several studies have used a visual search task to demonstrate that schematic negative-face targets are found faster and/or more efficiently than positive ones, with these findings taken as evidence that negative emotional expression is capable of guiding attentional allocation in visual search. A common hypothesis is that these effects should be disrupted by face inversion; however, this has not been consistently demonstrated, and raises the possibility of a perceptual confound. One candidate confound is the feature of "closure" (see Wolfe & Horowitz, 2004) caused by the down-turned mouth adjacent to edge of the face. This was investigated in the present series of experiments. In Experiment 1, the speed advantage for upright negative faces was replicated. In Experiment 2, the effect was not disrupted with inversion, and an efficiency advantage emerged, suggesting that perceptual features could be causing the advantage. In Experiment 3, speed and efficiency effects were seen when this perceptual characteristic remained but face features were scrambled. Taken together, these findings suggest that visual search using schematic faces containing a curved-line mouth feature cannot provide a valid test of guided search by negative facial emotion unless this confound is controlled.

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