When upper and lower regions from different emotionless faces are aligned to form a facial composite, observers ‘fuse’ the two halves together, perceptually. The illusory distortion induced by task-irrelevant (‘distractor’) halves hinders participants' judgements about task-relevant (‘target’) halves. This composite-face effect reveals a tendency to integrate feature information from disparate regions of intact upright faces, consistent with theories of holistic face processing. However, observers frequently perceive emotion in ostensibly neutral faces, contrary to the intentions of experimenters. This study sought to determine whether this ‘perceived emotion’ influences the composite-face effect. In our first experiment, we confirmed that the composite effect grows stronger as the strength of distractor emotion increased. Critically, effects of distractor emotion were induced by weak emotion intensities, and were incidental insofar as emotion cues hindered image matching, not emotion labelling per se. In Experiment 2, we found a correlation between the presence of perceived emotion in a set of ostensibly neutral distractor regions sourced from commonly used face databases, and the strength of illusory distortion they induced. In Experiment 3, participants completed a sequential matching composite task in which half of the distractor regions were rated high and low for perceived emotion, respectively. Significantly stronger composite effects were induced by the high-emotion distractor halves. These convergent results suggest that perceived emotion increases the strength of the composite-face effect induced by supposedly emotionless faces. These findings have important implications for the study of holistic face processing in typical and atypical populations
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