A subtle change can affect your ability to count

ResearchBlogging.orgHere's a really interesting experiment that we may be able to replicate online. Take a look at this very short video. You'll be shown a set of 12 arcs. Some of the arcs will be upturned and some of them will be turned downward, as in the example below.


You'll have about 2.5 seconds to count the DOWNTURNED arcs -- just watch the video once!

How many did you see? Record your answer below.

After you've answered the poll, read on for an explanation of what this all means.

Just to make sure your answer isn't spoiled, I'm going to add some extra space before getting on to the explanation.

As you might have guessed based on watching the movie, our little experiment is actually more about the arrangement of those little arcs than how fast you can count. Researchers have long known that facial expressions can be distracting -- and that some are more distracting than others. In particular, negative expressions tend to be the most distracting.

John Eastwood, Daniel Smilek, and Philip Merikle found that they can even distract viewers from the most basic of tasks. They showed 52 student volunteers dozens of randomly arrayed "faces," in groups of four just like the ones you saw above -- some with frowns, and some with smiles. The task was simply to count either the number of upturned arcs or downturned arcs. In addition, half the time, the faces were displayed upside-down. How did they do? Here are the results:


As you can see, when the "faces" were depicted right-side-up, viewers were significantly slower to count the arcs on frowning faces than smiling faces. When the faces were upside-down and therefore the "emotions" they depicted were not easily recognizable, there was no significant difference in the results. Viewers also made significantly more errors counting the arcs on frowning upright faces.

Eastwood's team says this is because negative faces are more distracting than positive faces, perhaps because of their importance in survival (e.g. it would be helpful in the wilderness to spot another human's fearful face after she spotted a ravenous mountain lion). But it's also clear that something else is going on: we're clearly recognizing the global properties of objects before their local properties. We see the configuration of arcs into "faces" before we recognize how each arc is oriented -- which says something quite profound about how the human visual system functions.

So, did our replication of experiment work? For a complete analysis of the results, see this post.

Eastwood, J.D., Smilek, D., Merikle, P.M. (2003). Negative facial expression captures attention and disrupts performance Perception & Psychophysics, 65 (3), 352-358

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4 down turned. the 6 they refer to is in the first or previous version of the experiment. Actually if you viewed this the way I did, there are 4 faces, frowning. So there are really 4 down and 8 up arcs.

Maybe you should look and see again. The correct response is also mentioned in the article:
"I've replaced the original movie and poll with new ones for "frowning" faces. Once again there are six upward-turned arcs. If we replicated the experiment, fewer respondents should get this one correct."

"We see the configuration of arcs into "faces" before we recognize how each arc is oriented"

I'm not sure we can conclude that we first see the whole face and only later its elements. the differences between conditions can be the result of stronger parallel competing process in the upright condition comparing to the upside-down. (assuming that the upside-down presentation produce a week global process).

in this case the fact that we need more time to percept "sad" faces might produce a "stronger" parallel process.

in other words, can we say that it is the fact that "sad" faces takes longer to percept and not a distraction stands for this results ?


I guessed 6, based on my immediate visual recollection of what I saw (greater than two smiling faces). It seems to me this is also a test of people's short-term visual memory.

I only *saw* 6 , but I counted 8. I had counted six and saw there was one more *face* to go as the clip ended, so I assumed it was the same and added 2 to my total.

By Kerry Maxwell (not verified) on 14 Oct 2008 #permalink

The facial expressions totally bamboozled me! My initial response was "2" - a confusion between downturned arcs and downturned eyelids!

Aren't we hardwired from birth to recognize faces? So much so that we see them everywhere, even in the surface of the moon?

Ergo the "happy face" may be the one we process more quickly.

BTW, I counted eight. But then, I had some training in visual inspection for a Job I had a few years ago