The valence-specific laterality effect in free viewing conditions: The influence of sex, handedness, and response bias

Brain Cogn. 2003 Dec;53(3):452-63. doi: 10.1016/s0278-2626(03)00217-3.


The right hemisphere has often been viewed as having a dominant role in the processing of emotional information. Other evidence indicates that both hemispheres process emotional information but their involvement is valence specific, with the right hemisphere dealing with negative emotions and the left hemisphere preferentially processing positive emotions. This has been found under both restricted (Reuter-Lorenz & Davidson, 1981) and free viewing conditions (Jansari, Tranel, & Adophs, 2000). It remains unclear whether the valence-specific laterality effect is also sex specific or is influenced by the handedness of participants. To explore this issue we repeated Jansari et al.'s free-viewing laterality task with 78 participants. We found a valence-specific laterality effect in women but not men, with women discriminating negative emotional expressions more accurately when the face was presented on the left-hand side and discriminating positive emotions more accurately when those faces were presented on the right-hand side. These results indicate that under free viewing conditions women are more lateralised for the processing of facial emotion than are men. Handedness did not affect the lateralised processing of facial emotion. Finally, participants demonstrated a response bias on control trials, where facial emotion did not differ between the faces. Participants selected the left-hand side more frequently when they believed the expression was negative and the right-hand side more frequently when they believed the expression was positive. This response bias can cause a spurious valence-specific laterality effect which might have contributed to the conflicting findings within the literature.

MeSH terms

  • Affect*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Discrimination, Psychological
  • Facial Expression
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Sex Factors
  • Visual Perception*