Knowing How You Are Feeling Depends on What’s on My Mind: Cognitive Load and Expression Categorization

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The ability to correctly interpret facial expressions is key to effective social interactions. People are well rehearsed and generally very efficient at correctly categorizing expressions. However, does their ability to do so depend on how cognitively loaded they are at the time? Using repeated-measures designs, we assessed the sensitivity of facial expression categorization to cognitive resources availability by measuring people’s expression categorization performance during concurrent low and high cognitive load situations. In Experiment1, participants categorized the 6 basic upright facial expressions in a 6-automated-facial-coding response paradigm while maintaining low or high loading information in working memory (N = 40; 60 observations per load condition). In Experiment 2, they did so for both upright and inverted faces (N = 46; 60 observations per load and inversion condition). In both experiments, expression categorization for upright faces was worse during high versus low load. Categorization rates actually improved with increased load for the inverted faces. The opposing effects of cognitive load on upright and inverted expressions are explained in terms of a cognitive load–related dispersion in the attentional window. Overall, the findings support that expression categorization is sensitive to cognitive resources availability and moreover suggest that, in this paradigm, it is the perceptual processing stage of expression categorization that is affected by cognitive load.

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