Is Emotional Magnitude Spatialized? A Further Investigation

Cogn Sci. 2019 Apr;43(4):e12727. doi: 10.1111/cogs.12727.


Accumulating evidence suggests that different magnitudes (e.g., number, size, and duration) are spatialized in the mind according to a common left-right metric, consistent with a generalized system for representing magnitude. A previous study conducted by two of us (Holmes & Lourenco, ) provided evidence that this metric extends to the processing of emotional magnitude, or the intensity of emotion expressed in faces. Recently, however, Pitt and Casasanto () showed that the earlier effects may have been driven by a left-right mapping of mouth size rather than emotional magnitude, and they found no evidence for an emotional magnitude mapping when using words as stimuli. Here, we report two new experiments that further examine these conclusions. In Experiment 1, using face stimuli with mouths occluded, we replicate the original finding: Less emotional faces were associated with the left and more emotional faces with the right. However, we also find that people can reliably infer the sizes of the occluded mouths, and that these inferred mouth sizes can explain the observed left-right mapping. In Experiment 2, we show that comparative judgments of emotional words yield a left-right mapping of emotional magnitude not attributable to stimulus confounds. Based on these findings, we concur with Pitt and Casasanto that faces pose challenges for isolating the forces driving spatialization, but we suggest that emotional magnitude, when assessed using unconfounded stimuli in a sufficiently sensitive task, may indeed be spatialized as originally proposed. Suggestions for further research on the spatialization of emotional magnitude are discussed.

Keywords: Emotion; Faces; General magnitude system; Intensity; Magnitude; Space; Valence; Words.

MeSH terms

  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Judgment / physiology*
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Social Perception*