Pareidolic faces receive prioritized attention in the dot-probe task

Atten Percept Psychophys. 2023 May;85(4):1106-1126. doi: 10.3758/s13414-023-02685-6. Epub 2023 Mar 14.


Face pareidolia occurs when random or ambiguous inanimate objects are perceived as faces. While real faces automatically receive prioritized attention compared with nonface objects, it is unclear whether pareidolic faces similarly receive special attention. We hypothesized that, given the evolutionary importance of broadly detecting animacy, pareidolic faces may have enough faceness to activate a broad face template, triggering prioritized attention. To test this hypothesis, and to explore where along the faceness continuum pareidolic faces fall, we conducted a series of dot-probe experiments in which we paired pareidolic faces with other images directly competing for attention: objects, animal faces, and human faces. We found that pareidolic faces elicited more prioritized attention than objects, a process that was disrupted by inversion, suggesting this prioritized attention was unlikely to be driven by low-level features. However, unexpectedly, pareidolic faces received more privileged attention compared with animal faces and showed similar prioritized attention to human faces. This attentional efficiency may be due to pareidolic faces being perceived as not only face-like, but also as human-like, and having larger facial features-eyes and mouths-compared with real faces. Together, our findings suggest that pareidolic faces appear automatically attentionally privileged, similar to human faces. Our findings are consistent with the proposal of a highly sensitive broad face detection system that is activated by pareidolic faces, triggering false alarms (i.e., illusory faces), which, evolutionarily, are less detrimental relative to missing potentially relevant signals (e.g., conspecific or heterospecific threats). In sum, pareidolic faces appear "special" in attracting attention.

Keywords: Attention capture; Attention prioritization; Dot-probe; Face detection; Face template; Face-like; Faces; Own-species bias; Pareidolia; Privileged attention; Visual attention.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Illusions*
  • Mouth