Perceiving emotions in neutral faces: expression processing is biased by affective person knowledge

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According to a widely held view, basic emotions such as happiness or anger are reflected in facial expressions that are invariant and uniquely defined by specific facial muscle movements. Accordingly, expression perception should not be vulnerable to influences outside the face. Here, we test this assumption by manipulating the emotional valence of biographical knowledge associated with individual persons. Faces of well-known and initially unfamiliar persons displaying neutral expressions were associated with socially relevant negative, positive or comparatively neutral biographical information. The expressions of faces associated with negative information were classified as more negative than faces associated with neutral information. Event-related brain potential modulations in the early posterior negativity, a component taken to reflect early sensory processing of affective stimuli such as emotional facial expressions, suggest that negative affective knowledge can bias the perception of faces with neutral expressions toward subjectively displaying negative emotions.

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