Conceptual knowledge predicts the representational structure of facial emotion perception

Jeffrey A. Brooks, Jonathan B. Freeman

Research output: Contribution to journalLetterpeer-review


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 isolation1–4. 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)581-591
Number of pages11
JournalNature human behaviour
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


Dive into the research topics of 'Conceptual knowledge predicts the representational structure of facial emotion perception'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this