Stimulus and observer characteristics jointly determine the relevance of threatening facial expressions and their interaction with attention

  • Michèle Chadwick
  • Hannah Metzler
  • Charles Tijus
  • Jorge L. Armony
  • Julie GrèzesEmail author
Original Paper


Most emotional stimuli, including facial expressions, are judged not only by their intrinsic characteristics, but also by the context in which they appear. Gaze direction, for example, modifies the salience of explicitly presented facial displays. Yet, it is unknown whether this effect persists when facial displays are no longer task-relevant. Here, we first varied the salience of fearful, angry or neutral displays using gaze direction, while participants performed a gender (attended faces) or a scene discrimination task (unattended faces). Best performance occurred when faces were unattended and emotional expressions were highly salient (direct anger and averted fear), suggesting that these combinations are sufficiently important to capture attention and enhance visual processing. In a second experiment, we transiently changed participants’ individual characteristics by instructing them to hold either expansive or constrictive postures. Best performance occurred for direct anger and averted fear following expansive and constrictive postures, respectively, demonstrating that stimulus and observer characteristics jointly determine the attribution of relevance of threatening facial expressions and their interaction with attention.


Emotion Gaze Threat Body posture Object-based attention 



This work was supported by the French National Research Agency under Grants ANR-11-EMCO-00902, ANR-10-LABX-0087 IEC, ANR-17-EURE-0017, ANR-10-IDEX-0001-02 PSL*, by INSERM and by a doctoral fellowship of the École des Neurosciences de Paris Ile-de-France and the Région Ile-de-France (DIM Cerveau et Pensée) to H.M..

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives, INSERM U960, Département d’études cognitives, Ecole Normale SupérieurePSL Research UniversityParisFrance
  2. 2.Laboratoire Cognitions Humaine et Artificielle, EA4004University Paris 8Saint-DenisFrance
  3. 3.Sorbonne Universités, UPMC University Paris 6ParisFrance
  4. 4.Department of Psychiatry & Douglas Mental Health University InstituteMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada

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