Semantic categorization precedes affective evaluation of visual scenes

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2010 May;139(2):222-46. doi: 10.1037/a0018858.


We compared the primacy of affective versus semantic categorization by using forced-choice saccadic and manual response tasks. Participants viewed paired emotional and neutral scenes involving humans or animals flashed rapidly in extrafoveal vision. Participants were instructed to categorize the targets by saccading toward the location occupied by a predefined target scene. The affective task involved saccading toward an unpleasant or pleasant scene, and the semantic task involved saccading toward a scene containing an animal. Both affective and semantic target scenes could be reliably categorized in less than 220 ms, but semantic categorization was always faster than affective categorization. This finding was replicated with singly, foveally presented scenes and manual responses. In comparison with foveal presentation, extrafoveal presentation slowed down the categorization of affective targets more than that of semantic targets. Exposure threshold for accurate categorization was lower for semantic information than for affective information. Superordinate-, basic-, and subordinate-level semantic categorizations were faster than affective evaluation. We conclude that affective analysis of scenes cannot bypass object recognition. Rather, semantic categorization precedes and is required for affective evaluation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention*
  • Cognition
  • Concept Formation*
  • Emotions*
  • Eye Movements
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Judgment*
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychomotor Performance
  • Reaction Time
  • Recognition, Psychology*
  • Regression Analysis
  • Social Perception
  • Young Adult