I know how you feel: task-irrelevant facial expressions are spontaneously processed at a semantic level

Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2008 Mar;8(1):54-64. doi: 10.3758/cabn.8.1.54.


Previous studies have demonstrated that emotions are automatically processed. Even with subliminal presentations, subjects involuntarily mimic specific facial expressions, are influenced by the valence of a preceding emotion during judgments, and exhibit slowed responses to personally meaningful emotions; these effects are due to reflexive mimicry, unconscious carryover of valence, and attentional capture, respectively. However, perception-action effects indicate that rapid processing should involve deep, semantic-level representations of emotion (e.g., "fear"), even in the absence of a clinical emotion disorder. To test this hypothesis, we developed an emotional Stroop task (Emostroop) in which subjects responded nonverbally to emotion words superimposed over task-irrelevant images of faces displaying congruent or incongruent emotional expressions. Subjects reliably responded more slowly to incongruent than to congruent stimuli, and this interference was related to trait measures of emotionality. Rapid processing of facial emotions spontaneously activates semantic, content-rich representations at the level of the specific emotion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Awareness
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Female
  • Field Dependence-Independence*
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological*
  • Male
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Reading
  • Semantics
  • Social Perception*