Inducing a Concurrent Motor Load Reduces Categorization Precision for Facial Expressions

Article English OPEN
Ipser, A. ; Cook, R.
  • Publisher: American Psychological Association
  • Journal: Journal of Experimental Psychology. Human Perception and Performance, volume 42, issue 5, pages 706-718 (issn: 0096-1523, eissn: 1939-1277)
  • Related identifiers: pmc: PMC4839775, doi: 10.1037/xhp0000177
  • Subject: Reports | BF | simulation | facial expressions | psyc | motor theories | mirror neurons | smile sincerity
    mesheuropmc: behavioral disciplines and activities | psychological phenomena and processes

Motor theories of expression perception posit that observers simulate facial expressions within their own motor system, aiding perception and interpretation. Consistent with this view, reports have suggested that blocking facial mimicry induces expression labeling errors and alters patterns of ratings. Crucially, however, it is unclear whether changes in labeling and rating behavior reflect genuine perceptual phenomena (e.g., greater internal noise associated with expression perception or interpretation) or are products of response bias. In an effort to advance this literature, the present study introduces a new psychophysical paradigm for investigating motor contributions to expression perception that overcomes some of the limitations inherent in simple labeling and rating tasks. Observers were asked to judge whether smiles drawn from a morph continuum were sincere or insincere, in the presence or absence of a motor load induced by the concurrent production of vowel sounds. Having confirmed that smile sincerity judgments depend on cues from both eye and mouth regions (Experiment 1), we demonstrated that vowel production reduces the precision with which smiles are categorized (Experiment 2). In Experiment 3, we replicated this effect when observers were required to produce vowels, but not when they passively listened to the same vowel sounds. In Experiments 4 and 5, we found that gender categorizations, equated for difficulty, were unaffected by vowel production, irrespective of the presence of a smiling expression. These findings greatly advance our understanding of motor contributions to expression perception and represent a timely contribution in light of recent high-profile challenges to the existing evidence base.