Eye Tracking the Face in the Crowd Task: Why Are Angry Faces Found more Quickly?
Shasteen, Jonathon R.
Sasson, Noah J.
Pinkham, Amy E.
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Among a crowd of distractor faces, threatening or angry target faces are identified more quickly and accurately than are nonthreatening or happy target faces, a finding known as the "face in the crowd effect." Two perceptual explanations of the effect have been proposed: (1) the "target orienting" hypothesis (i.e., threatening targets orient attention more quickly than do nonthreatening targets and (2) the "distractor processing" hypothesis (i.e., nonthreatening distractors paired with a threatening target are processed more efficiently than vice versa, leading to quicker detection of threatening targets). Using a task, with real faces and multiple identities, the current study replicated the face in the crowd effect and then, via eye tracking, found greater support for the target orienting hypothesis. Across both the classical search asymmetry paradigm (i.e., one happy target in a crowd of angry distractors vs. one angry target in a crowd of happy distractors) and the constant distractor paradigm (i.e., one happy target in a crowd of neutral distractors vs. one angry target in a crowd of neutral distractors), fewer distractors were fixated before first fixating angry targets relative to happy targets, with no difference in the processing efficiency of distractors. These results suggest that the face in the crowd effect on this task is supported to a greater degree by attentional patterns associated with properties of target rather those of the crowd.