What are you looking at? Investigating the interaction of facial expression, eye-gaze and the detection of threat

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35 Citations (Scopus)


While the effects of eye‐gaze and more recently, facial expression, have been extensively studied, few have considered the influence of these factors in detecting emotionally relevant stimuli. The aims of this study were to; introduce and validate a novel gaze‐cueing paradigm; investigate whether congruency between the emotional relevance of stimuli and facial cues effect target detection time, and; to investigate the relationship between threat vigilance, facial expression and environmental context. Design: Participants performed a task in which they were to indicate the location of a target stimulus after the presentation of a central cue. Within‐subjects variables were: cue type (happy, angry, disgusted, fearful and neutral faces, and line/arrow) x cue direction (left, right and straight) x target pair (gun/stapler, spider/beetle, money/newspaper and table/chair) x target location (left, right, both locations and neither location). Between‐subjects, participants were assigned to detect emotionally relevant or emotionally benign targets. Method: Response times for 181 participants were recorded using an adapted Posner cueing paradigm. Each trial presented a non‐predictive, directional or non‐directional, central face or arrow cue prior to the onset of two flanking target stimuli. Target pairs were presented in blocks, creating threatening, pleasant/opportunity and benign contexts. Combinations of cue direction and target location created three gaze‐cueing contingencies – direction congruent with target location (valid trials); direction incongruent (invalid trials) or no direction indicated (non‐directional trials). Participants indicated by keyboard selection where they first saw the target. The data were analysed via mixed analysis of variance and planned contrasts. Results: Results revealed gaze‐cue effects for all faces, and threat superiority effects. While greater gaze following was observed for arrows than faces, this did not translate to faster response times. Congruency effects were found in straight gaze trials when participants searched for emotionally irrelevant targets. There was clear evidence of threat vigilance when participants searched for emotionally relevant stimuli. Angry, disgusted and fearful faces resulted in faster response times than happy faces in threat contexts, and neutral faces in the opportunity and benign contexts. No such modulation occurred when searching for emotionally irrelevant targets. Conclusion: These findings indicate the new paradigm was successful in detecting gaze‐following, gaze‐cueing and threat superiority effects. The findings also demonstrate nuanced interactions that support theories positing the dynamic, competitive interaction of multiple stimulus‐driven and observer‐dependent inputs in determining relevant stimuli for selective attention.
Original languageEnglish
Article number206
Pages (from-to)68-68
Number of pages1
JournalAustralian Psychologist
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 01 Dec 2018


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