Reversing Threat to Safety: Incongruence of Facial Emotions and Instructed Threat Modulates Conscious Perception but Not Physiological Responding

Florian Bublatzky*, Martin Riemer, Pedro Guerra

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)
166 Downloads (Pure)


Facial expressions inform about other peoples' emotion and motivation and thus are central for social communication. However, the meaning of facial expressions may change depending on what we have learned about the related consequences. For instance, a smile might easily become threatening when displayed by a person who is known to be dangerous. The present study examined the malleability of emotional facial valence by means of social learning. To this end, facial expressions served as cues for verbally instructed threat-of-shock or safety (e.g., "happy faces cue shocks"). Moreover, reversal instructions tested the flexibility of threat/safety associations (e.g., "now happy faces cue safety"). Throughout the experiment, happy, neutral, and angry facial expressions were presented and auditory startle probes elicited defensive reflex activity. Results show that self-reported ratings and physiological reactions to threat/safety cues dissociate. Regarding threat and valence ratings, happy facial expressions tended to be more resistant becoming a threat cue, and angry faces remain threatening even when instructed as safety cue. For physiological response systems, however, we observed threat-potentiated startle reflex and enhanced skin conductance responses for threat compared to safety cues regardless of whether threat was cued by happy or angry faces. Thus, the incongruity of visual and verbal threat/safety information modulates conscious perception, but not the activation of physiological response systems. These results show that verbal instructions can readily overwrite the intrinsic meaning of facial emotions, with clear benefits for social communication as learning and anticipation of threat and safety readjusted to accurately track environmental changes.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2091
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages13
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 13-Sept-2019


  • reversal learning
  • emotional facial expression
  • threat-of-shock
  • startle reflex
  • social learning
  • FEAR


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