Psychological Research

, Volume 81, Issue 2, pp 508–523 | Cite as

Measuring the emotion-specificity of rapid stimulus-driven attraction of attention to fearful faces: evidence from emotion categorization and a comparison with disgusted faces

  • Shah KhalidEmail author
  • Gernot Horstmann
  • Thomas Ditye
  • Ulrich Ansorge
Original Article


In the current study, we tested whether a fear advantage—rapid attraction of attention to fearful faces that is more stimulus-driven than to neutral faces—is emotion specific. We used a cueing task with face cues preceding targets. Cues were non-predictive of the target locations. In two experiments, we found enhanced cueing of saccades towards the targets with fearful face cues than with neutral face cues: Saccades towards targets were more efficient with cues and targets at the same position (under valid conditions) than at opposite positions (under invalid conditions), and this cueing effect was stronger with fearful than with neutral face cues. In addition, this cueing effect difference between fearful and neutral faces was absent with inverted faces as cues, indicating that the fear advantage is face-specific. We also show that emotion categorization of the face cues mirrored these effects: Participants were better at categorizing face cues as fearful or neutral with upright than with inverted faces (Experiment 1). Finally, in alternative blocks including disgusted faces instead of fearful faces, we found more similar cueing effects with disgusted faces and neutral faces, and with upright and inverted faces (Experiment 2). Jointly, these results demonstrate that the fear advantage is emotion-specific. Results are discussed in light of evolutionary explanations of the fear advantage.


Validity Effect Saccadic Reaction Time Invalid Condition Fearful Face Inverted Face 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



Supported by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft Grant KH 341/1-1 to Shah Khalid. We thank Erica Krcal and Julia Riedl for help with the data collection.


  1. Bacon, W. F., & Egeth, H. E. (1994). Overriding stimulus-driven attentional capture. Perception and Psychophysics, 55, 485–496.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Bannerman, R. L., Milders, M., & Sahraie, A. (2010). Attentional bias to brief threat-related faces revealed by saccadic eye movements. Emotion, 10, 733–738.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Becker, D. V., Anderson, U. S., Mortensen, C. R., Neufeld, S. L., & Neel, R. (2011). The face in the crowd effect unconfounded: happy faces, not angry faces, are more efficiently detected in single-and multiple-target visual search tasks. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140, 637–659.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Boll, S., Gamer, M., Kalisch, R., & Büchel, C. (2011). Processing of facial expressions and their significance for the observer in subregions of the human amygdala. Neuroimage, 56(1), 299–306.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Carretié, L., Ruiz-Padial, E., López-Martín, S., & Albert, J. (2011). Decomposing unpleasantness: differential exogenous attention to disgusting and fearful stimuli. Biological Psychology, 86, 247–253.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Chapman, H. A., & Anderson, A. K. (2012). Understanding disgust. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1251, 62–76.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Chapman, H. A., Johannes, K., Poppenk, J. L., Moscovitch, M., & Anderson, A. K. (2013). Evidence for the differential salience of disgust and fear in episodic memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142, 1100–1112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Cisler, J. M., & Olatunji, B. O. (2010). Components of attentional biases in contamination fear: evidence for difficulty in disengagement. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 48, 74–78.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Cisler, J. M., Olatunji, B. O., Lohr, J. M., & Williams, N. L. (2009). Attentional bias differences between fear and disgust: implications for the role of disgust in disgust-related anxiety disorders. Cognition and Emotion, 23, 675–687.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  10. Davis, F. C., Somerville, L. H., Ruberry, E. J., Berry, A. B., Shin, L. M., & Whalen, P. J. (2011). A tale of two negatives: differential memory modulation by threat-related facial expressions. Emotion, 11, 647–655.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  11. Deubel, H., & Schneider, W. X. (1996). Saccade target selection and object recognition: evidence for a common attentional mechanism. Vision Research, 36, 1827–1837.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Eastwood, J. D., Smilek, D., & Merikle, P. M. (2001). Differential attentional guidance by unattended faces expressing positive and negative emotion. Perception and Psychophysics, 63, 1004–1013.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Fischer, B., & Weber, H. (1993). Express saccades and visual attention. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16, 533–610.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Folk, C. L., Remington, R. W., & Johnston, J. C. (1992). Involuntary covert orienting is contingent on attentional control settings. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 18, 1030.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Fox, E., Russo, R., Bowles, R., & Dutton, K. (2001). Do threatening stimuli draw or hold visual attention in subclinical anxiety? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130, 681.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Fox, E., Russo, R., & Dutton, K. (2002). Attentional bias for threat: evidence for delayed disengagement from emotional faces. Cognition and Emotion, 16, 355–379.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  17. Fridlund, A. (1994). Human facial expression: An evolutionary view. San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  18. Frischen, A., Eastwood, J. D., & Smilek, D. (2008). Visual search for faces with emotional expressions. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 662–676.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Hoffman, J. E., & Subramaniam, B. (1995). The role of visual attention in saccadic eye movements. Perception and Psychophysics, 57, 787–795.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Horstmann, G. (2003). What do facial expressions convey: feeling states, behavioral intentions, or action requests? Emotion, 3, 150–166.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Horstmann, G. (2009). Visual search for schematic affective faces: stability and variability of search slopes with different instances. Cognition and Emotion, 23, 355–379.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Horstmann, G., & Ansorge, U. (2009). Visual search for facial expressions of emotion: a comparison of dynamic and static faces. Emotion, 9, 29–38.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Horstmann, G., & Bauland, A. (2006). Search asymmetries with real faces: testing the anger-superiority effect. Emotion, 6, 193–207.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Horstmann, G., Scharlau, I., & Ansorge, U. (2006). More efficient rejection of happy than of angry face distractors in visual search. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 13, 1067–1073.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Jin, Z., & Reeves, A. (2009). Attentional release in the saccadic gap effect. Vision Research, 49, 2045–2055.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Koster, E. H., Crombez, G., Van Damme, S., Verschuere, B., & De Houwer, J. (2004). Does imminent threat capture and hold attention? Emotion, 4, 312.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Kowler, E., Anderson, E., Dosher, B., & Blaser, E. (1995). The role of attention in the programming of saccades. Vision Research, 35, 1897–1916.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Krusemark, E. A., & Li, W. (2011). Do all threats work the same way? Divergent effects of fear and disgust on sensory perception and attention. The Journal of Neuroscience, 31, 3429–3434.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  29. Lang, P. J., Bradley, M. M., & Cuthbert, B. N. (1997). International affective picture system (IAPS): Technical manual and affective ratings. NIMH Center for the Study of Emotion and Attention, pp 39–58.Google Scholar
  30. Laux, L., Glanzmann, P., Schaffner, P., & Spielberger, C. D. (1981). Das State-Trait-Anxiety-Inventory (STAI) [The state-trait anxiety inventory (STAI)]. German version. Göttingen: Hogrefe.Google Scholar
  31. Leder, H., & Bruce, V. (2000). When inverted faces are recognized: the role of configural information in face recognition. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 53A, 513–536.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Lundqvist, D., Flykt, A., & Öhman, A. (1998). The Karolinska directed emotional faces—KDEF [CD ROM]. Stockholm: Karolinska Institutet, Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Psychology Section.Google Scholar
  33. N’Diaye, K., Sander, D., & Vuilleumier, P. (2009). Self-relevance processing in the human amygdala: gaze direction, facial expression, and emotion intensity. Emotion, 9, 798–806.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Öhman, A. (1993). Fear and anxiety as emotional phenomenon: Clinical phenomenology, evolutionary perspectives, and information-processing mechanisms. In M. Lewis & J. M. Haviland (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (pp. 511–536). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  35. Öhman, A., Flykt, A., & Esteves, F. (2001). Emotion drives attention: detecting the snake in the grass. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130, 466–478.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Posner, M. I. (1980). Orienting of attention. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 32A, 3–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Rozin, P., Haidt, J., & McCauley, C. R. (1993). Disgust. In M. Lewis & J. Haviland (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (pp. 575–594). New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  38. Saslow, M. G. (1967). Effects of components of displacement-step stimuli upon latency for saccadic eye movement. Journal of the Optical Society of America, 57, 1024–1029.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Savage, R. A., Lipp, O. V., Craig, B. M., Becker, S. I., & Horstmann, G. (2013). In search of the emotional face: anger versus happiness superiority in visual search. Emotion, 13, 758–768.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. Susskind, J. M., Lee, D. H., Cusi, A., Feiman, R., Grabski, W., & Anderson, A. K. (2008). Expressing fear enhances sensory acquisition. Nature Neuroscience, 11, 843–850.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. van Hooff, J. C., Devue, C., Vieweg, P. E., & Theeuwes, J. (2013). Disgust-and not fear-evoking images hold our attention. Acta Psychologica, 143, 1–6.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Vermeulen, N., Godefroid, J., & Mermillod, M. (2009). Emotional modulation of attention: fear increases but disgust reduces the attentional blink. PLoS ONE, 4(11), e7924.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  43. Vogt, J., Lozo, L., Koster, E. H., & De Houwer, J. (2011). On the role of goal relevance in emotional attention: disgust evokes early attention to cleanliness. Cognition and Emotion, 25, 466–477.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Whalen, P. J. (1998). Fear, vigilance, and ambiguity: initial neuroimaging studies of the human amygdala. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 7, 177–188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Yang, E., Zald, D. H., & Blake, R. (2007). Fearful expressions gain preferential access to awareness during continuous flash suppression. Emotion, 7, 882–886.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Cognitive ScienceUniversity of OsnabrückOsnabrückGermany
  2. 2.Faculty of Psychology and Sports ScienceUniversity of BielefeldBielefeldGermany
  3. 3.Faculty of PsychologyUniversity of ViennaViennaAustria

Personalised recommendations