Social Neuroscience – We Recognize Emoticons as if They Are Actual Faces

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It is now common practice, in digital communication, to use the character combination “:-)”, known as an emoticon, to indicate a smiling face. Although emoticons are readily interpreted as smiling faces, it is unclear whether emoticons trigger face-specific mechanisms or whether separate systems are utilized. A hallmark of face perception is the utilization of regions in the occipitotemporal cortex, which are sensitive to configural processing. We recorded the N170 event-related potential to investigate the way in which emoticons are perceived. Inverting faces produces a larger and later N170 while inverting objects which are perceived featurally rather than configurally reduces the amplitude of the N170. We presented 20 participants with images of upright and inverted faces, emoticons and meaningless strings of characters. Emoticons showed a large amplitude N170 when upright and a decrease in amplitude when inverted, the opposite pattern to that shown by faces. This indicates that when upright, emoticons are processed in occipitotemporal sites similarly to faces due to their familiar configuration. However, the characters which indicate the physiognomic features of emoticons are not recognized by the more laterally placed facial feature detection systems used in processing inverted faces.

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