The perceptual saliency of fearful eyes and smiles: a signal detection study

Mahmoud Medhat Elsherif, Muhammet Ikbal Saban, Pia Rotshtein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)
139 Downloads (Pure)


Facial features differ in the amount of expressive information they convey. Specifically, eyes are argued to be essential for fear recognition, while smiles are crucial for recognising happy expressions. In three experiments, we tested whether expression modulates the perceptual saliency of diagnostic facial features and whether the feature’s saliency depends on the face configuration. Participants were presented with masked facial features or noise at perceptual conscious threshold. The task was to indicate whether eyes (experiments 1-3A) or a mouth (experiment 3B) was present. The expression of the face and its configuration (i.e. spatial arrangement of the features) were manipulated. Experiment 1 compared fearful with neutral expressions, experiments 2 and 3 compared fearful versus happy expressions. The detection accuracy data was analysed using Signal Detection Theory (SDT), to examine the effects of expression and configuration on perceptual precision (d’) and response bias (c), separately. Across all three experiments, fearful eyes were detected better (higher d’) than neutral and happy eyes. Eyes were more precisely detected than mouths, whereas smiles were detected better than fearful mouths. The configuration of the features had no consistent effects across the experiments on the ability to detect expressive features. But facial configuration affected consistently the response bias. Participants used a more liberal criterion for detecting the eyes in canonical configuration and fearful expression. Finally, the power in low spatial frequency of a feature predicted its discriminability index. The results suggest that expressive features are perceptually more salient with a higher d’ due to changes at the low-level visual properties, with emotions and configuration affecting perception through top-down processes, as reflected by the response bias.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0173199
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 7 Mar 2017


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