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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00954

Emotional faces in symbolic relations: A happiness superiority effect involving the equivalence paradigm

  • 1Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil
  • 2Instituto Nacional de Ciência e Tecnologia sobre Comportamento, Cognição e Ensino (ECCE), Brazil
  • 3Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil

The stimulus equivalence paradigm presented operational criteria to identify symbolic functions in observable behaviors. When humans match dissimilar stimuli (e.g., words to pictures), equivalence relations between those stimuli are likely to be demonstrated through behavioral tests derived from the logical properties of reflexivity, symmetry, and transitivity. If these properties are confirmed, one can say that those stimuli are members of an equivalence class in which each member is substitutable for the others. A number of studies, which have established equivalence classes comprised of arbitrary stimuli and pictures of faces expressing emotions, have found that valences of the faces affect the relatedness of equivalent stimuli. Importantly, several studies reported stronger relational strength in equivalence classes containing happy faces than in equivalence classes containing angry faces. The processes that may account for this higher degree of relatability of happy faces are not yet known. The current study investigated the dynamics of the symbolic relational responding involving facial expressions of different emotions by means of the Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure (IRAP). Participants were 186 undergraduate students who were taught to establish two equivalence classes, each comprising pictures of faces expressing either happiness (for one class) or a negative emotion (for another class), and meaningless words. The IRAP effect was taken as an index for the relational strength established between equivalent stimuli in the different equivalence classes. The dynamics of arbitrary relational responding in the course of the four IRAP trial types revealed that the participants exhibited a stronger IRAP effect in trials involving the happy faces and a weaker IRAP effect in trials involving the negative faces. These findings indicate that the happy faces had higher impact on the symbolic relational responding than the negative faces. The potential role played by the orienting function of happy versus negative faces is discussed. By considering other studies that also reported a happiness superiority effect in other contexts, we present converging evidence for the prioritization of positive affect in emotional, categorical, and symbolic processing.

Keywords: Symbolic behavior, Stimulus equivalence, Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure, facial expressions, happy superiority effect

Received: 28 Sep 2018; Accepted: 10 Apr 2019.

Edited by:

Camilo Hurtado-Parrado, Troy University, United States

Reviewed by:

Maria I. Munoz-Blanco, Panamerican University, Mexico
Ricardo Pérez Almonacid, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social and Human Sciences, University of Antioquia, Colombia  

Copyright: © 2019 Bortoloti, De Almeida and de Rose. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Renato Bortoloti, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil,