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Original Research ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02400

Task demands modulate effects of threatening faces on early perceptual encoding

  • 1Faculté de Psychologie et des Sciences de l'Éducation , Université de Genève, Switzerland

The threat capture hypothesis states that threatening stimuli are automatically processed with higher priority than non-threatening stimuli, irrespective of observer intentions or focus of attention. We evaluated the threat capture hypothesis with respect to the early perceptual stages of face processing. We focused on an electrophysiological marker of face processing (the lateralized N170) in response to neutral, happy, and angry facial expressions displayed in competition with a non-face stimulus (a house). We evaluated how effects of facial expression on the lateralized N170 were modulated by task demands. In the pixel task, participants were required to identify the gender of the face, which made the face task-relevant and entailed structural encoding of the face stimulus. In the pixel task, participants identified the location of a missing pixel in the fixation cross, which made the face task-irrelevant and placed it outside the focus of attention. When faces were relevant, the lateralized N170 to angry faces was enhanced compared to happy and neutral faces. When faces were irrelevant, facial expression had no effect. These results reveal the critical role of task demands on the preference for threatening faces, indicating that top-down, voluntary processing modulates the prioritization of threat.

Keywords: Threat capture hypothesis, task demand, N170, lateralized N170, facial expressions, threat, Angry faces

Received: 30 Jul 2019; Accepted: 08 Oct 2019.

Copyright: © 2019 Burra and Kerzel. 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. Nicolas Burra, Faculté de Psychologie et des Sciences de l'Éducation , Université de Genève, Geneva 4, 1211, Geneva, Switzerland,