We can correctly classify faces as attractive or unattractive, even when they appear so quickly that we’re not conscious of seeing them. This is according to a study that also found that subliminal attractive faces also prime positive emotions.
Each face stayed on-screen for only 13 milliseconds and was preceded by a picture of a scrambled face and was followed by a picture of a cartoon face.
Showing something just before or just after a briefly presented picture is known as ‘masking’ and helps to ensure that after it appears, the picture doesn’t stay in iconic memory – a very brief ‘after-image’ memory that extends our visual experience after something has gone.
Essentially, masking ensures the image doesn’t register consciously, and when participants were asked to classify the flashes as either attractive or unattractive faces they claimed they were just guessing because they couldn’t ‘see’ any photographs of faces.
But, on average, they managed to correctly classify the faces as attractive or unattractive, suggesting that facial attractiveness is something that is something that we process very quickly, so quick, it can happen before we’re consciously aware of it.
In another experiment, the researchers flashed up pictures of attractive and unattractive faces and houses, shortly followed by a word.
The word could either be linked to positive emotions (such as ‘laughter’) or negative emotions (such as ‘agony’) and participants were asked just to hit a button to classify the words as either good or bad.
The idea was to test whether attractive faces made participants react more quickly to positive words – strong evidence that these concepts had been ‘primed‘.
Priming is where one concept activates related concepts in the brain. So if you’re thinking of ‘football’, semantically related concepts like ‘game’, ‘crowd’ or ‘team’ will be made more available to your thoughts.
Psychologists know this because people will react more quickly to related concepts than to unrelated concepts if asked to identify them.
Olson and Marshuetz found that unconsciously presented attractive faces, but not attractive houses, primed positive emotions.
This suggests that attractive faces may have a particular attention and emotion grabbing effect. The effect seems so strong, it seems to work even when a face hasn’t registered in our conscious mind.