The cost of facing fear: visual working memory is impaired for faces expressing fear

Kim M. Curby*, Stephen D. Smith, Denise Moerel, Amy Dyson

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    8 Citations (Scopus)


    Previous research has identified numerous factors affecting the capacity and accuracy of visual working memory (VWM). One potentially important factor is the emotionality of the stimuli to be encoded and held in VWM. We often must hold in VWM information that is emotionally charged, but much is still unknown about how the emotionality of stimuli impacts VWM performance. In the current research, we performed four studies examining the impact of fearful facial expressions on VWM for faces. Fearful expressions were found to produce a consistent cost to VWM performance. This cost was modulated by encoding time, but not set size. This cost was only present for faces in an upright orientation consistent with this cost being a product of the emotionality of the faces rather than lower-level perceptual differences between neutral and fearful faces. These findings are discussed in the context of existing theoretical accounts of the impact of emotion on information processing. We suggest that a number of competing effects drive both costs and benefits and are at play when emotional information must be stored in VWM, with the task context determining the balance between them.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)428-448
    Number of pages21
    JournalBritish Journal of Psychology
    Issue number2
    Early online date13 Jul 2018
    Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2019


    • emotion
    • faces
    • fearful expressions
    • visual working memory


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