Fearful Faces Have a Sensory Advantage in the Competition for Awareness

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Only a subset of visual signals give rise to a conscious percept. Threat signals, such as fearful faces, are particularly salient to human vision. Research suggests that fearful faces are evaluated without awareness and preferentially promoted to conscious perception. This agrees with evolutionary theories that posit a dedicated pathway specialized in processing threat-relevant signals. We propose an alternative explanation for this “fear advantage.” Using psychophysical data from continuous flash suppression (CFS) and masking experiments, we demonstrate that awareness of facial expressions is predicted by effective contrast: the relationship between their Fourier spectrum and the contrast sensitivity function. Fearful faces have higher effective contrast than neutral expressions and this, not threat content, predicts their enhanced access to awareness. Importantly, our findings do not support the existence of a specialized mechanism that promotes threatening stimuli to awareness. Rather, our data suggest that evolutionary or learned adaptations have molded the fearful expression to exploit our general-purpose sensory mechanisms.

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