Context Effects on Facial Affect Recognition in Schizophrenia and Autism: Behavioral and Eye-Tracking Evidence

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Abstract

Although Schizophrenia (SCZ) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) share impairments in emotion recognition, the mechanisms underlying these impairments may differ. The current study used the novel “Emotions in Context” task to examine how the interpretation and visual inspection of facial affect is modulated by congruent and incongruent emotional contexts in SCZ and ASD. Both adults with SCZ (n = 44) and those with ASD (n = 21) exhibited reduced affect recognition relative to typically-developing (TD) controls (n = 39) when faces were integrated within broader emotional scenes but not when they were presented in isolation, underscoring the importance of using stimuli that better approximate real-world contexts. Additionally, viewing faces within congruent emotional scenes improved accuracy and visual attention to the face for controls more so than the clinical groups, suggesting that individuals with SCZ and ASD may not benefit from the presence of complementary emotional information as readily as controls. Despite these similarities, important distinctions between SCZ and ASD were found. In every condition, IQ was related to emotion-recognition accuracy for the SCZ group but not for the ASD or TD groups. Further, only the ASD group failed to increase their visual attention to faces in incongruent emotional scenes, suggesting a lower reliance on facial information within ambiguous emotional contexts relative to congruent ones. Collectively, these findings highlight both shared and distinct social cognitive processes in SCZ and ASD that may contribute to their characteristic social disabilities.

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