Current theories of emotion perception posit that basic facial expressions signal categorically discrete emotions or affective dimensions of valence and arousal. In both cases, the information is thought to be directly "read out" from the face in a way that is largely immune to context. In contrast, the three studies reported here demonstrated that identical facial configurations convey strikingly different emotions and dimensional values depending on the affective context in which they are embedded. This effect is modulated by the similarity between the target facial expression and the facial expression typically associated with the context. Moreover, by monitoring eye movements, we demonstrated that characteristic fixation patterns previously thought to be determined solely by the facial expression are systematically modulated by emotional context already at very early stages of visual processing, even by the first time the face is fixated. Our results indicate that the perception of basic facial expressions is not context invariant and can be categorically altered by context at early perceptual levels.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This work was funded by National Institute of Mental Health Grant R01 MH 64458 to S. Bentin, by Israeli Science Foundation Grant 846/03 to R.R. Hassin, and by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grant to J. Ryan. We thank Grace Leung for assisting in the eye movement study.