Unconscious Processing of Facial Dominance: The Role of Low-Level Factors in Access to Awareness

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Abstract

Visual stimuli with social-emotional relevance have been claimed to gain preferential access to awareness. For example, recent studies used the breaking continuous flash suppression paradigm (b-CFS) to show that faces that are perceived as less dominant and more trustworthy are prioritized for awareness. Here we asked whether these effects truly reflect differences in social-emotional meaning or whether they can be equally explained by differences in low-level stimulus properties. In Experiment 1, we successfully replicated dominance- and untrustworthiness-related slowing for upright faces. However, these effects were equally strong for inverted faces, even though it was more difficult to perceive social characteristics in inverted faces. The previously reported correlation between dominance- and untrustworthiness-related slowing in b-CFS and self-reported propensity to trust did not replicate. Experiment 2 showed that dominance-related slowing in b-CFS can also be observed when only presenting the eye region of faces, and even when the eye region was presented inverted and/or with reversed contrast polarity, in which case personality traits were no longer discernible. These results were replicated in Experiment 3 following a preregistration protocol. Altogether, our findings link dominance-related slowing in b-CFS to physical differences in the eye region that are—when presented in isolation—unrelated to the perception of dominance. We conclude that low-level physical stimulus differences provide a parsimonious explanation for the effect of social facial characteristics on access to awareness.

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