Functional consequences of perceiving facial expressions of emotion without awareness

Consciousness and Cognition 14 (3):565-584 (2005)
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A substantial body of research has established that even when we are not consciously aware of the faces of others we are nevertheless sensitive to, and impacted by their facial expression. In this paper, we consider this body of research from a new perspective by examining the functions of unconscious perception revealed by these studies. A consideration of the literature from this perspective highlights that existing research methods are limited when it comes to revealing possible functions of unconscious perception. The critical shortcoming is that in all of the methods, the perceived facial expression remains outside of awareness. This is a problem because there are good reasons to believe that one important function of unconsciously perceived negative faces is to attract attention so that they are consciously perceived; such conscious perception, however, is never allowed with existing methodologies. We discuss recent studies of emotional face perception under conditions of visual search that address this issue directly. Further, we suggest that methodologies that do not examine cognitive processes as they occur in more natural settings may result in fundamental misunderstandings of human cognition



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