When a Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Language Shapes Perceptual Memory for Emotion

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Across 3 studies we show that emotion words support the acquisition of conceptual knowledge for emotional facial actions that then biases subsequent perceptual memory for later emotional facial actions. In all studies, participants first associated emotional facial actions with a word during a learning phase or completed a control task. In a target phase, participants studied slightly different category exemplars. During a final test phase, participants identified which face the individual had been making during the target phase (i.e., the learned face, the target face, or a morphed combination). Studies 1 and 2 demonstrate that pairing never-before-seen “alien” facial actions with nonsense words during the learning phase biases perceptual memory for facial actions subsequently viewed during the target phase. Study 3 replicates these findings with the familiar emotion categories fear and anger. Across all 3 studies, participants were more likely to choose the face that had been linked with a word during the learning phase than the face actually studied in the target phase. These findings suggest that pairing facial actions with words can shape later perceptual memory for emotional facial actions.

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