A Tale of Two Negatives: Differential Memory Modulation by Threat-Related Facial Expressions

F. Caroline Davis*, Leah H. Somerville, Erika J. Ruberry, Andrew B.L. Berry, Lisa M. Shin, Paul J. Whalen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


Facial expressions serve as cues that encourage viewers to learn about their immediate environment. In studies assessing the influence of emotional cues on behavior, fearful and angry faces are often combined into one category, such as "threat-related," because they share similar emotional valence and arousal properties. However, these expressions convey different information to the viewer. Fearful faces indicate the increased probability of a threat, whereas angry expressions embody a certain and direct threat. This conceptualization predicts that a fearful face should facilitate processing of the environment to gather information to disambiguate the threat. Here, we tested whether fearful faces facilitated processing of neutral information presented in close temporal proximity to the faces. In Experiment 1, we demonstrated that, compared with neutral faces, fearful faces enhanced memory for neutral words presented in the experimental context, whereas angry faces did not. In Experiment 2, we directly compared the effects of fearful and angry faces on subsequent memory for emotional faces versus neutral words. We replicated the findings of Experiment 1 and extended them by showing that participants remembered more faces from the angry face condition relative to the fear condition, consistent with the notion that anger differs from fear in that it directs attention toward the angry individual. Because these effects cannot be attributed to differences in arousal or valence processing, we suggest they are best understood in terms of differences in the predictive information conveyed by fearful and angry facial expressions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)647-655
Number of pages9
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Attention
  • Emotion
  • Facial expressions
  • Memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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