Threatening Facial Expressions Impact Goal-Directed Actions Only if Task-Relevant

Christian Mancini, Luca Falciati, Claudio Maioli, Giovanni Mirabella

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Facial emotional expressions are a salient source of information for nonverbal social interactions. However, their impact on action planning and execution is highly controversial. In this vein, the effect of the two threatening facial expressions, i.e., angry and fearful faces, is still unclear. Frequently, fear and anger are used interchangeably as negative emotions. However, they convey different social signals. Unlike fear, anger indicates a direct threat toward the observer. To provide new evidence on this issue, we exploited a novel design based on two versions of a Go/No-go task. In the emotional version, healthy participants had to perform the same movement for pictures of fearful, angry, or happy faces and withhold it when neutral expressions were presented. The same pictures were shown in the control version, but participants had to move or suppress the movement, according to the actor's gender. This experimental design allows us to test task relevance's impact on emotional stimuli without conflating movement planning with target detection and task switching. We found that the emotional content of faces interferes with actions only when task-relevant, i.e., the effect of emotions is context-dependent. We also showed that angry faces qualitatively had the same effect as fearful faces, i.e., both negative emotions decreased response readiness with respect to happy expressions. However, anger has a much greater impact than fear, as it increases both the rates of mistakes and the time of movement execution. We interpreted these results, suggesting that participants have to exploit more cognitive resources to appraise threatening than positive facial expressions, and angry than fearful faces before acting.

Original languageEnglish
JournalBrain Sciences
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - Oct 29 2020


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