2011. Vol.2, No.7, 727-731
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.27111
The Impact of Cognitive Demands on Attention to Facial versus
Situational Cues When Judging Emotions
Joann M. Montepare
RoseMary B. Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies, Lasell College,
Newton, Massachusetts, USA.
Received February 9th, 2011; revised June 7th, 2011; accepted August 24th, 2011.
What information guides how perceivers evaluate people’s emotional experiences? Some regard expressive fa-
cial cues to be the critical source of information whereas others argue that situational cues exert the decisive im-
pact. This research explored an alternative view suggesting that both information sources are of consequence
and that cognitive demands placed on perceivers play a pivotal role in determining what information they use.
To test this view, perceivers were given discrepant combinations of facial and situational information about peo-
ple’s emotional experiences and identified what emotions they felt. Facial information influenced perceivers’
judgments most often when demands were placed on their cognitive resources. In contrast, situational information
had the greatest impact when cognitive demands were minimized. These findings shed light on the debate sur-
rounding the issue of facial v e rsus situational domi na n ce and t h e p rocess by which emotion judgments are made.
Keywords: Emotion Perception, Facial Cues, Cognitive Demand
Since the publication of The Expression of the Emotions in
Man and Animals (Darwin, 1872), researchers interested in
nonverbal behavior have debated the nature of emotional ex-
pressions (DePaulo & Friedman, 1998; Knapp & Hall, 2007;
Stanley & Meyer, 2009). One question that has held center
stage is the extent to which expressive facial cues are the criti-
cal source of information in emotion judgments. While some
theorists regard facial information as preeminent, others con-
tend that situational information drives judgments. The present
research considers an alternative position that suggests that both
sources of information play a role in emotion judgments and
that basic cognitive mechanisms guide their relative impact.
Proponents of facial dominance view facial expressions as
evolutionary adaptations that provide direct cues to basic affect-
tive states. Thus, when perceivers observe a person displaying
an emotional expression, it is presumed that facial cues will
dominate perceivers’ judgments and override contradictory
information provided by transient situational information (Buck,
1984; Ekman, 1992; Ekman & Friesen, 1975; Tomkins, 1962-
1963). However, it is acknowledged that from an early age
people learn to conceal, control and manage their facial expres-
sions so that in some situations emotion displays may be weak
or ambiguous and contextual effects emerge (Izard, 1994; Ma-
tsumoto,Yoo, Hirayama, & Petrova, 2005).
Early empirical evidence supporting facial dominance was
provided by a procedure designed by Goodenough and Tinker
(1931) in which perceivers were presented with discrepant
combinations of facial information (pictures of a person’s emo-
tional facial expressions) and situational information (verbal
descriptions of an emotional event a person encounters). When
asked to identify what emotions the person experienced, research
found that perceivers’ judgments were strongly influenced by
expressive facial cues (Ekman, Friesen, & Ellsworth, 1982;
Fernandez-Dols, Sierra, & Ruiz-Belda, 1993; Fernandez-Dols,
Wallbott, & Sanchez, 1991; Nakamura, Buck, & Kenny, 1990).
Several exceptions to the observed advantage of facial in-
formation have challenged the subordinate role of situational
information. For instance, Fernandez-Dols, Wallbott and San-
chez (1991) found that when given an opportunity to categorize
situations with emotion labels used for identifying facial ex-
pressions, perceivers made greater use of situational informa-
tion in a Goodenough-Tinker task. Carroll and Russell (1996)
provided the most theoretically compelling evidence for the
impact of situational information. These researchers agree that
faces evolved to provide socially adaptive information. How-
ever, facial expressions do not signal specific emotional states
but rather reflect general affective dimensions of pleasantness
and arousal. Thus, perceivers must look to situational informa-
tion to determine the specific nature of a person’s emotional
experience. Moreover, situational information is especially
critical to emotion judgments when facial and situational in-
formation vary along shared affective dimensions (see also
Fridlund, 1994; Russell, 1997).
To demonstrate their position, Carroll and Russell (1996)
told perceivers a story describing an emotional event and then
showed them a picture of a person displaying a facial expres-
sion as in the Goodenough-Tinker procedure. The emotions that
were represented shared similar valences with respect to pleas-
antness and arousal yet reflected emotions suggested to be basic
and distinct (e.g., a story about a frightening event was paired
with a picture depicting an angry expression). Perceivers iden-
tified what the person in the picture was feeling and their
judgments coincided more with information provided by situ-
ational rather than facial information. Such findings are diffi-
cult to reconcile with the claim that facial expressions are pre-
eminent in emotion judgments and signal specific emotional
1Ekman, Friesen and Ellsworth (1982) have suggested several methodology-
cal issues that could account for differences in the relative dominance o
facial versus situational information in the emotion judgments that may be
found when using procedures such as the Goodenough-Tinker (1931) one.
An obvious factor, source clarity, were considered and eliminated as the
basis for Carroll and Russell’s (1996) findings.
Can these opposing views be reconciled? Insights may be
gained by moving beyond research designed to establish the
relative dominance of information to investigating cognitive
mechanisms that guide judgments when perceivers encounter
diverse information. Advocates of both facial and situational
dominance have acknowledged the need for research to explore
the role cognitive mechanisms play in how perceivers process
discrepant facial and situational information (Carroll & Russell,
1996; Ekman, Friesen, & Ellsworth, 1982; Fernandez-Dols,
Wallbott, & Sanchez, 1991). However, attention to this need
has been unduly scant.
The present research rests on the assumption that perceivers
routinely encounter emotion information from multiple sources
in daily social exchanges and that general cognitive processes
serve an important function in utilizing this information.
Moreover, drawing on the social-cognitive conceptualization of
person perception as a multi-level system (Gilbert & Krull,
1988; Gilbert, Pelham, & Krull, 1988), it is proposed that atten-
tion to facial information reflects a lower order judgment proc-
ess that occurs automatically given the visual salience and
communicative function of facial cues. In contrast, attention to
situational information involves a higher order judgment proc-
ess that requires more extensive cognitive effort given that
contexts do not serve explicit communicative functions and
involve multiple events. Given these distinctions, it is hypothe-
sized that when perceivers encounter facial and situational in-
formation and attempt to make an emotion judgment, they will
attend to facial information when their cognitive resources are
strained. Such may have been the case in research that found
evidence for facial dominance insofar as perceivers were typi-
cally asked to evaluate random combinations of information
which is cognitively taxing. When cognitive demands are re-
duced, situational information will draw perceivers’ attention.
Such may have been the case in research that found evidence
for situational dominance insofar as perceivers were given a
greater opportunity to process situational information. To ex-
plore the merit of this cognitive-processing view, the present
research replicated several experimental conditions utilized by
Carroll and Russell (1996) and manipulated perceivers’ level of
cognitive demand as they attempted to make emotion judg-
Thirty -seven Cauc asian psych ology student s (10 men and 27
women) between the ages of 17 and 23 (Mage = 19.32) volun-
teered to participate in the study. Approximately equal numbers
were randomly assigned to one of two experimental conditions
(i.e., low demand or high demand) and to one of two sets of
stimulus faces.
Stimulus Materials
Two sets of faces were selected from those catalogued by
Ekman and Friesen (1975). The first set consisted of 1 fearful
male face, 1 angry female face, and 1 sad female face. The
second set consisted of 1 sad female fa ce, 1 fearful fema le f ace,
and 1 angry male face. The presentation of faces in each set
was randomly ordered. The faces were equated for size and
reproduced in black and white ink for presentation on 8.5 x 11
in. overhead transparencies.
Three different stories describing emotional situations were
selected from Carroll and Russell (1996) and are presented in
Table 1. The researchers developed (and tested) these stories to
be unambiguous in emotional meaning. One story was written
to suggest anger and was paired with the fearful faces. One
story suggested fear and was paired with the angry faces. One
story suggested disgust and was paired with the sad faces. The
gender of the person in each story was modified appropriately
to match the gender of the stimulus faces.
Participants convened in small groups and were told that the
study explored how people make judgments about what others
are feeling. They were further told that they would be hearing
about experiences of different people and seeing a picture of
their face and that their task was to identify what each person
was feeling. Participants were then presented with three
face-story combinations (e.g., sad face—disgust situation; an-
gry face—fear situation, fear face—anger situation).
The participants were read each story by a research assistant
in a clear, non-emotional, uniform style who was blind to the
experimental hypotheses. Immediately after the story was read,
the corresponding face was presented on an overhead projector
and participants were asked, “What emotion is the woman (man)
feeling?” Participants responded by circling one of six emotions
(happy, anger, sad, surprise, fear and disgust). The faces were
kept in view for the same length of time as it took to read the
stories to control for the potential confounding effects of dif-
ferences in exposure to facial versus situational information.
Experimental Manipulation
Following the initial instructions, participants in the high
Table 1.
Stories depicting emotion a l s i tu a t ions.
Anger situation
This is a s tory of a man who had recentl y bought a new car. Tod ay, he is wal king b ack to his car across th e parking lot after running
errands at the post office. From the distance, he can see some kids around his car. Then he sees one of them holding one of the car’s
hubcaps. He yells at the kids and they take off to a nearby forest waving hubcaps in their hands. Now that he is close to his car, he can
see that it is certainly missing its hubcaps.
Fear situation
This is a story about a woman who had never done anything really exciting in her life. One day she decided she had to do something
exciting so she enrolled in a class for parachuting. Today is the day that she will make her first jump. She and her class are seated in
the plane as it reaches the right altitude for parachute jumping. The instructor calls her name. It is her turn to jump. She refuses to
leave her seat.
Disgust situation
This is a story of a woman who went away on quite a long business trip. When she arrived home, even at the front door, she could
smell something was wrong. As she entered the kitchen the smell grew even stronger. She found that she had forgotten to take out the
kitchen garbage. The rancid smell whooshed out as she closed the bag. The bag was so full that as she carried it to the curb it tore
slightly and she could fee l li quid from the bo ttom of the ba g drip down her le g.
ote: All stories were developed and tested for clarity by Carroll & Russell (1996).
demand condition were given the following instructions sug-
gested by Patterson and Stockbridge (1998) before the face-
story combinations were presented:
Now, in real life situations, where we make judgments about
other people, we also have to attend to a variety of other con-
cerns. To approximate these circumstances more closely, you
will also be given a memory taska grocery list to remember
and recall after you answer what you think the person is feeling.
Simply try to remember as much of the list as you can without
writing down the items. After you describe what you think the
person is feeling, youll be asked to recall and write down as
many of the items as you can.
Three different grocery lists were generated to go with each
of the face-story combinations. An example of a grocery list is:
a package of hot dog rolls, two bars of soap, graham crackers,
and paper napkins. Grocery lists were read in the same manner
as the stories. Each list was read twice before the story was read
and the corresponding face was presented. After participants
made their emotion judgment, they wrote down the grocery
items they recalled. Participants in the low demand condition
were not given any additional instructions. They were merely
asked to view the faces, listen to the stories, and make their
judgments. Following the experimental task, specific hypothe-
ses were described, questions were addressed, and participants
were thanked for their time. No indication was given that par-
ticipants were aware of the issues being explored.
As in Carroll and Russell’s (1996) research, inspection of the
percentage of participants selecting specific emotion responses
were used to assess the impact of facial versus situational in-
formation on emotion judgments. Percentages within the low
and high demand conditions are presented in Table 1 along with
relevant percentages reported by Carroll and Russell (1996).
According to predictions, judgments in the low demand condi-
tion should parallel those obtained when Carroll and Russell
presented perceivers with facial information that conflicted
with situational information. Percentages obtained in the high
demand condition should parallel those observed when Carroll
and Russell perceivers were provided only facial information.
Low Cognitive Demand
In the low cognitive demand condition, perceivers’ judg-
ments corresponded most closely with situational information.
Perceivers most often identified people as feeling disgust when
presented with sad faces and disgust situations. Similarly, they
identified people most often as feeling anger when presented
with fear faces and anger situations. They identified people
most often as feeling fear when presented with angry faces and
fear situations. Thus, perceivers attended more to situational
than facial information when fewer demands were placed on
their cognitive resources. This pattern paralleled what Carroll
and Russell (1996) found when perceivers made emotion
judgments when given contradictory facial and situational in-
High Cognitive Demand
With greater cognitive demand, perceivers’ judgments coin-
cided more with facial information. Perceivers identified people
most often as feeling sad when presented with sad faces and
disgust situations, as feeling fear when presented with fear face
and anger situations, and as feeling anger when presented with
angry faces and fear situations. This pattern was similar to what
Carroll and Russell (1996) found when perceivers judged emo-
tions from facial information alone.
Additional Analyses and Observations
The systematic impact of cognitive demand was also evident
from the frequency patterns shown in Figures 1-3. When re-
Figure 1.
Responses to facial, situational, and other information under low and
high demand in the sad facedisgust situation condition.
Figure 2.
Responses to facial, situational, and other information under low and
high demand in the angry facefear s i t ua t io n co n d it ion.
Figure 3.
Responses to facial, situational, and other information under low and
high demand in the fear face - a nger situation condition.
sponse were grouped according to whether they corresponded
to targeted facial information, situational information, or other
undetermined information, responses corresponding to situ-
ational information were most frequent with low demand in the
sad face-disgust situation conditions, X2(2) = 12.4, p < .01, and
the angry face-fear situation conditions, X2(2) = 5.2, p < .07.
With high demand, responses corresponding to facial informa-
tion were most frequent in the sad face-disgust situation condi-
tion, X2(2) = 5.8, p < .05, and the angry face-fear situation con-
ditions, X2(2) = 5.1, p < .08.
Interestingly, responses corresponding to situational infor-
mation were more frequent than those corresponding to facial
information in the low demand fear face-anger situation, al-
though the overall statistical test did not achieve significance,
likely as a result of the high frequency of responses that did not
correspond to either situational or facial information, X2(2) =
3.1, p > .05. Similarly, with high demand, responses corre-
sponding to facial information were more frequent than those
corresponding to situational information, albeit not significantly
so, owing to the frequency of responses that did not correspond
to either situational or facial information, X2(2) = .84, p > .05.
The data in Table 2 suggest that perceivers most often misiden-
tified emotions in the fear face-anger situation as surprise.
Table 2.
The percentage of participants choosing each emotion in each experi-
mental condition.
Emotion Low demand High demand
Sad face—Disgust situation
Happy 0 (0)a 0 (0)b
Angry 0 (0) 0 (0)
Sad 20 (8) 59 (92)
Surprise 5 (0) 6 (4)
Fear 5 (4) 6 (4)
Disgust 70 (88) 29 0
Angry face—Fear situation
Happy 0 (0) 0 (0)
Angry 40 (4)
59 (44)
Sad 0 (0) 0 (0)
Surprise 0 (16) 0 (16)
Fear 50 (76) 18 (12)
Disgust 10 (4) 23 (28)
Fear face—Anger situation
Happy 0 (0) 0 (0)
Angry 45 (76) 24 (4)
Sad 0 (0) 0 (0)
Surprise 35 (20) 29 (48)
Fear 15 (4)
35 (44)
Disgust 5 (0) 12 (4)
Note: The emotion selected most often italicized and appears in bold. aPercent-
ages in parentheses were reported by Carroll and Russell (1996) in their face plus
situation (F + S) condition . bPercentages in parentheses were reported by Carroll
and Russell (1996) in their face alone (F) condition.
What do these findings reveal about emotion judgments and
the debate surrounding the relative dominance of facial and
situational information? First, they suggest that attention to
facial and situational information is in part moderated by de-
mands placed on perceivers’ cognitive resources. When cogni-
tive demands are high, perceivers rely more on facial informa-
tion suggesting the primacy of facial cues in the emotion judg-
ment process. When perceivers are not compelled to exert high
cognitive effort, they make greater use of situational informa-
tion suggesting its inferential, resource-demanding nature. A
second, a broader implication of these findings is that mecha-
nisms involved in processing nonverbal (emotional) cues coin-
cide with general social-cognitive processes identified in person
perception resear ch .
In addition to the predicted effects, several additional note-
worthy effects were observed. In particular, some emotions
(e.g., surprise) were erroneously identified in high percentages
despite the availability of explicit facial or situational informa-
tion. Other researchers have found similar recognition errors
(Carroll & Russell, 1996; Ekman & Friesen, 1975). Such errors
point to unresolved questions about the nature of basic emo-
tions and the cues that support their perception. It was also
observed that some perceivers made emotion judgments that
were not consistent with either the intended facial or situational
information. These errors suggest that additional cognitive
mechanisms may be invoked when perceivers are confronted
with conflicting emotion information. For example, some per-
ceivers may attempt to utilize integrative strategies such as the
ones Asch (1946) suggested perceivers use when combining
varied trait information about people into an overall impression.
Determining what other cognitive mechanisms impact on emo-
tion judgments and what factors guide their use are important
questions to address.
A final issue to consider is the nature of facial versus situ-
ational information. In this and previous research, situational
information was verbal in nature. Gilbert and Krull (1988) have
argued that drawing inferences from nonverbal behaviors is
more automatic than drawing inferences from verbal behavior.
Thus, the effects observed here likely also involve reactions to
specific types of stimulus information. In everyday contexts,
situations embody a variety of verbal and nonverbal cues.
Moreover, facial cues are embedded in situational contexts in
complex and diverse ways. Knowing how to best distinguish
and represent these different sources of information experi-
mentally is a challenge researchers must confront.
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