Cognitive Psychology deals with a wide variety of issues concerning human psyche and its inner mechanisms using a set of specific methods. Among others, this discipline is exploring the issue of the effect of different visual stimuli on human attention. For example, the study of the relationship between facial configurations, facial emotion, and visual attention by Daniel Lundqwist and Arne Ohman sought to determine how quickly humans react to different facial stimuli including threatening, neutral and friendly faces.
The hypothesis was that humans will react more quickly to the threatening faces since human survival often depends on the ability to find dangers in the environment. Thus, the focus of the study was the relationship between emotional expression, facial features and attention.
Contemporary cognitive psychologists distinguish between stimulus-driven attention and goal-oriented, conceptually-driven attention process although they also note the interaction between the two types of attention. The stimulus-driven attention, also called ‘passive attention’, has become the focus of the study. The researchers drew on previous studies in the field that demonstrated the link between emotion and attention, such as Ohman, Flykt, and Esteves that showed the priority of identification for stimuli such as snakes and spiders. Another study that created the background for this research was the experiment by Tipples et al. that compared detection of threatening, scheming, sad and friendly configurations. The researchers found little difference in the detection of scheming and threatening configurations that both had raised eyebrows and thus concluded that eyebrows “have a critical role in conveying negative effect”. Daniel Lundqwist and Arne Ohman conducted their study in order to further the exploration of the relationship between facial expressions and attention measures. They were also interested in the necessity and sufficiency of certain facial features for the identification of emotions.
The participants of the research took part in the experiment in which they were asked to find faces whose expression differed from others on lists of identical faces. The identification took place in a visual search among faces that flashed across the computer screen. The data were generalized in statistical analysis that produced separate distributions for attention and emotion data. The scientists manipulated the background, putting in either emotional or neutral faces, noting that abundance of emotional faces usually slowed down the speed with which participants answered the questions. In the first experiment, the researchers presented faces that had signs of threat in only two from three facial features that commonly indicate threat: eyes, eyebrows, and mouth. In the second and third experiments, the researchers replaced expressive features with neutral ones until only one expressive feature was left for a face in the third experiment. The subjects were also asked to rate the expression of the faces.
The results of the experiments prove that people are able to identify threat using only two of facial features and disprove the necessary role previously ascribed to eyebrows as indicators of threat. The results also showed that the original hypothesis about the quicker identification of threatening faces was correct. Participants indeed found those faces at a greater speed and with a higher hit rate of correct answers even in cases when menace was visible in only one feature, such as frowning eyebrows or pouted lips. The attention was most quickly attracted by eyebrows, with mouth and eyes being the next important points of focus. Although subjects were able to identify the threat in a face that either lacked eyebrows or eyebrows did not convey threat, the potency and activity of reaction to menacing faces were in direct relationship to the presence of eyebrows in the face. On the contrary, faces without eyebrows looked friendlier. The scholars also established a link between emotion measures and efficiency of attention. The sets of stimuli that evoked a more emotional response were likely to be more efficiently detected in terms of facial meanings.
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