Neural evidence for the subliminal processing of facial trustworthiness in infancy

Sarah Jessen*, Tobias Grossmann

*Corresponding author for this work
16 Citations (Scopus)


Face evaluation is thought to play a vital role in human social interactions. One prominent aspect is the evaluation of facial signs of trustworthiness, which has been shown to occur reliably, rapidly, and without conscious awareness in adults. Recent developmental work indicates that the sensitivity to facial trustworthiness has early ontogenetic origins as it can already be observed in infancy. However, it is unclear whether infants’ sensitivity to facial signs of trustworthiness relies upon conscious processing of a face or, similar to adults, occurs also in response to subliminal faces. To investigate this question, we conducted an event-related brain potential (ERP) study, in which we presented 7-month-old infants with faces varying in trustworthiness. Facial stimuli were presented subliminally (below infants’ face visibility threshold) for only 50 ms and then masked by presenting a scrambled face image. Our data revealed that infants’ ERP responses to subliminally presented faces differed as a function of trustworthiness. Specifically, untrustworthy faces elicited an enhanced negative slow wave (800–1000 ms) at frontal and central electrodes. The current findings critically extend prior work by showing that, similar to adults, infants’ neural detection of facial signs of trustworthiness occurs also in response to subliminal face. This supports the view that detecting facial trustworthiness is an early developing and automatic process in humans.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)46-53
Number of pages8
Publication statusPublished - 18.03.2019

Research Areas and Centers

  • Academic Focus: Center for Brain, Behavior and Metabolism (CBBM)


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