Fear detection and visual awareness in perceiving bodily expressions

Emotion. 2011 Oct;11(5):1182-9. doi: 10.1037/a0024032.


Many research reports have concluded that emotional information can be processed without observers being aware of it. The case for perception without awareness has almost always been made with the use of facial expressions. In view of the similarities between facial and bodily expressions for rapid perception and communication of emotional signals, we conjectured that perception of bodily expressions may also not necessarily require visual awareness. Our study investigates the role of visual awareness in the perception of bodily expressions using a backward masking technique in combination with confidence ratings on a trial-by-trial basis. Participants had to detect in three separate experiments masked fearful, angry and happy bodily expressions among masked neutral bodily actions as distractors and subsequently the participants had to indicate their confidence. The onset between target and mask (Stimulus Onset Asynchrony, SOA) varied from -50 to +133 ms. Sensitivity measurements (d-prime) as well as the confidence of the participants showed that the bodies could be detected reliably in all SOA conditions. In an important finding, a lack of covariance was observed between the objective and subjective measurements when the participants had to detect fearful bodily expressions, yet this was not the case when participants had to detect happy or angry bodily expressions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anger
  • Awareness*
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Fear / psychology*
  • Female
  • Happiness
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Nonverbal Communication / psychology*
  • Visual Perception
  • Young Adult