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Lanie Bachmann, Winner of the 2022 NIMH Three-Minute Talks Competition


LANIE BACHMANN: Hi, I'm Lanie Bachmann. The human ability to recognize facial expressions is fundamental to social communication. During social interactions, we use the facial expressions of others to better understand how they're feeling. Given their importance, it makes sense that emotional expressions facilitate attention better than faces without emotional expressions. However, what we still don't know is how different emotional expressions, such as angry or happy capture our attention. In the decades long debate over this question one side has argued for the angry superiority effect in which angry threatening faces best capture our attention. While the opposing side has argued that happy, positive faces best capture your attention termed the happy face advantage. While there's evidence for both sides, this issue remains largely unsolved. In addition, internal emotional states such as anxiety are thought to modulate how we perceive emotional stimuli, but the exact impact of anxiety on attention is still unclear.

This led me to ask how different emotional expressions capture your attention and whether anxiety may act as a modulating factor. I conducted an online visual search experiment via Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform in order to get a large sample size with a large range of anxiety scores. I showed participants several faces such as these and asked them to search for the angry face in the crowd, and it's here circled in white. We ran the same task for happy faces as well. What I found was that out of 154 participants, happy faces shown here in orange were found more quickly than angry faces shown in blue. Not only were they found faster, but happy faces were found with greater accuracy as well. These data strongly support the happy face advantage and are inconsistent with the anger superiority effect, thus resolving the debate.

Finally, I wanted to understand the impact of anxiety on emotional attention. I measured the correlation between anxiety and task accuracy. I created an accuracy index, which was the accuracy for happy target trials minus the accuracy for angry target trials. While all participants showed the happy face advantage, the effect was weaker for the high anxiety group as they paid more attention to angry faces compared to those with low anxiety. Overall, I found an advantage for happy over angry faces and attentional capture. However, this effect does get smaller when you just look at those with high levels of anxiety as they have a larger bias for angry, threatening faces compared to those with low anxiety. These findings are important for understanding the phenomenon of emotional attention and may also shine light on how those with high levels of anxiety interact with and perceive their social environments every day. Thank you.