Valence Resolution of Ambiguous Facial Expressions Using an Emotional Oddball Task

Maital Neta, F. Caroline Davis, Paul J. Whalen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Previous research suggests that neural and behavioral responses to surprised faces are modulated by explicit contexts (e.g., " He just found $500" ). Here, we examined the effect of implicit contexts (i.e., valence of other frequently presented faces) on both valence ratings and ability to detect surprised faces (i.e., the infrequent target). In Experiment 1, we demonstrate that participants interpret surprised faces more positively when they are presented within a context of happy faces, as compared to a context of angry faces. In Experiments 2 and 3, we used the oddball paradigm to evaluate the effects of clearly valenced facial expressions (i.e., happy and angry) on default valence interpretations of surprised faces. We offer evidence that the default interpretation of surprise is negative, as participants were faster to detect surprised faces when presented within a happy context (Exp. 2). Finally, we kept the valence of the contexts constant (i.e., surprised faces) and showed that participants were faster to detect happy than angry faces (Exp. 3). Together, these experiments demonstrate the utility of the oddball paradigm to explore the default valence interpretation of presented facial expressions, particularly the ambiguously valenced facial expression of surprise.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1425-1433
Number of pages9
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Ambiguity
  • Emotion
  • Facial expressions
  • Oddball

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)

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