Perceptual Grouping, Not Emotion, Accounts for Search Asymmetries With Schematic Faces

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Several different explanations have been proposed to account for the search asymmetry (SA) for angry schematic faces (i.e., the fact that an angry face target among friendly faces can be found faster than vice versa). The present study critically tested the perceptual grouping account, (a) that the SA is not due to emotional factors, but to perceptual differences that render angry faces more salient than friendly faces, and (b) that the SA is mainly attributable to differences in distractor grouping, with angry faces being more difficult to group than friendly faces. In visual search for angry and friendly faces, the number of distractors visible during each fixation was systematically manipulated using the gaze-contingent window technique. The results showed that the SA emerged only when multiple distractors were visible during a fixation, supporting the grouping account. To distinguish between emotional and perceptual factors in the SA, we altered the perceptual properties of the faces (dented-chin face) so that the friendly face became more salient. In line with the perceptual account, the SA was reversed for these faces, showing faster search for a friendly face target. These results indicate that the SA reflects feature-level perceptual grouping, not emotional valence.

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