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Conceptual knowledge predicts the representational structure of facial emotion perception


Recent theoretical accounts argue that conceptual knowledge dynamically interacts with processing of facial cues, fundamentally influencing visual perception of social and emotion categories. Evidence is accumulating for the idea that a perceiver’s conceptual knowledge about emotion is involved in emotion perception, even when stereotypic facial expressions are presented in isolation1,2,3,4. However, existing methods have not allowed a comprehensive assessment of the relationship between conceptual knowledge and emotion perception across individuals and emotion categories. Here we use a representational similarity analysis approach to show that conceptual knowledge predicts the representational structure of facial emotion perception. We conducted three studies using computer mouse-tracking5 and reverse-correlation6 paradigms. Overall, we found that when individuals believed two emotions to be conceptually more similar, faces from those categories were perceived with a corresponding similarity, even when controlling for any physical similarity in the stimuli themselves. When emotions were rated conceptually more similar, computer-mouse trajectories during emotion perception exhibited a greater simultaneous attraction to both category responses (despite only one emotion being depicted; studies 1 and 2), and reverse-correlated face prototypes exhibited a greater visual resemblance (study 3). Together, our findings suggest that differences in conceptual knowledge are reflected in the perceptual processing of facial emotion.

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We thank L.I. Reed for assistance with FACS coding. This work was supported in part by research grant NIH-R01-MH112640 (J.B.F.). The funders of this research had no role in the conceptualization, design, data collection, analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

Both authors collaborated on the study concept, design, and interpretation of the data. J.A.B. collected and analysed the data. J.A.B. drafted the manuscript and J.B.F. provided critical revisions. Both authors approved the final version of the manuscript for submission.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Jeffrey A. Brooks or Jonathan B. Freeman.

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Fig. 1: Mouse-tracking effects.
Fig. 2: Average conceptual and perceptual DMs for studies 1–3 and schematic of the analytic approach.
Fig. 3: Multilevel regression results for studies 1–3.
Fig. 4: Reverse-correlation effects.