To investigate the mechanisms involved in automatic processing of facial expressions, we used the QUEST procedure to measure the display durations needed to make a gender decision on emotional faces portraying fearful, happy, or neutral facial expressions. In line with predictions of appraisal theories of emotion, our results showed greater processing priority of emotional stimuli regardless of their valence. Whereas all experimental conditions led to an averaged threshold of about 50 ms, fearful and happy facial expressions led to significantly less variability in the responses than neutral faces. Results suggest that attention may have been automatically drawn by the emotion portrayed by face targets, yielding more informative perceptions and less variable responses. The temporal resolution of the perceptual system (expressed by the thresholds) and the processing priority of the stimuli (expressed by the variability in the responses) may influence subjective and objective measures of awareness, respectively.
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