Facing threat: infants' and adults' visual scanning of faces with neutral, happy, sad, angry, and fearful emotional expressions.Cogn Emot. 2011 Feb; 25(2):193-205.CE
Human faces are among the most important visual stimuli that we encounter at all ages. This importance partly stems from the face as a conveyer of information on the emotional state of other individuals. Previous research has demonstrated specific scanning patterns in response to threat-related compared to non-threat-related emotional expressions. This study investigated how visual scanning patterns toward faces which display different emotional expressions develop during infancy. The visual scanning patterns of 4-month-old and 7-month-old infants and adults when looking at threat-related (i.e., angry and fearful) versus non-threat-related (i.e., happy, sad, and neutral) emotional faces were examined. We found that infants as well as adults displayed an avoidant looking pattern in response to threat-related emotional expressions with reduced dwell times and relatively less fixations to the inner features of the face. In addition, adults showed a pattern of eye contact avoidance when looking at threat-related emotional expressions that was not yet present in infants. Thus, whereas a general avoidant reaction to threat-related facial expressions appears to be present from very early in life, the avoidance of eye contact might be a learned response toward others' anger and fear that emerges later during development.