A shape-based account for holistic face processing

Mintao Zhao, Heinrich H Bülthoff, Isabelle Bülthoff

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19 Citations (Scopus)
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Faces are processed holistically, so selective attention to 1 face part without any influence of the others often fails. In this study, 3 experiments investigated what type of facial information (shape or surface) underlies holistic face processing and whether generalization of holistic processing to nonexperienced faces requires extensive discrimination experience. Results show that facial shape information alone is sufficient to elicit the composite face effect (CFE), 1 of the most convincing demonstrations of holistic processing, whereas facial surface information is unnecessary (Experiment 1). The CFE is eliminated when faces differ only in surface but not shape information, suggesting that variation of facial shape information is necessary to observe holistic face processing (Experiment 2). Removing 3-dimensional (3D) facial shape information also eliminates the CFE, indicating the necessity of 3D shape information for holistic face processing (Experiment 3). Moreover, participants show similar holistic processing for faces with and without extensive discrimination experience (i.e., own- and other-race faces), suggesting that generalization of holistic processing to nonexperienced faces requires facial shape information, but does not necessarily require further individuation experience. These results provide compelling evidence that facial shape information underlies holistic face processing. This shape-based account not only offers a consistent explanation for previous studies of holistic face processing, but also suggests a new ground-in addition to expertise-for the generalization of holistic processing to different types of faces and to nonface objects.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)584-597
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • face perception
  • holistic processing
  • composite face effect
  • shape information
  • surface information

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