Differential impact of disfiguring facial features on overt and covert attention

Luc Boutsen*, Nathan A. Pearson, Martin Jüttner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Observers can form negative impressions about faces that contain disfiguring features (e.g., scars). Previous research suggests that this might be due to the ability of disfiguring features to capture attention — as evidenced by contrasting observers’ responses to faces with or without disfiguring features. This, however, confounds the effects of salience and perceptual interpretation, i.e. whether the feature is seen as integral to the face, or separate from it. Furthermore, it remains unclear to what extent disfiguring features influence covert as well as overt attention. We addressed these issues by studying attentional effects by photographs of unfamiliar faces containing a unilateral disfigurement (a skin discoloration) or a visually similar control feature that was partly occluding the face. Disfiguring and occluding features were first matched for salience (Experiment 1). Experiments 2 and 3 assessed the effect of these features on covert attention in two cueing tasks involving discrimination of a (validly or invalidly cued) target in the presence of, respectively, a peripheral or central distractor face. In both conditions, disfigured and occluded faces did not differ significantly in their impact on response-time costs following invalid cues. In Experiment 4 we compared overt attention to these faces by analysing patterns of eye fixations during an attractiveness rating task. Critically, faces with disfiguring features attracted more fixations on the eyes and incurred a higher number of recurrent fixations compared to faces with salience-matched occluding features. Together, these results suggest a differential impact of disfiguring facial features on overt and covert attention, which is mediated both by the visual salience of such features and by their perceptual interpretation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)122-134
Number of pages13
JournalActa Psychologica
Early online date11 Aug 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2018

Bibliographical note

© 2018, Elsevier. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/


  • Attention
  • Eye movements
  • Face perception
  • Facial disfigurements


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