Emotional Faces in Symbolic Relations: A Happiness Superiority Effect Involving the Equivalence Paradigm

Renato Bortoloti, Rodrigo Vianna de Almeida, João Henrique de Almeida, Júlio de Rose

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17 Citations (Scopus)
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The stimulus equivalence paradigm presented operational criteria to identify symbolic functions in observable behaviors. When humans match dissimilar stimuli (e.g., words to pictures), equivalence relations between those stimuli are likely to be demonstrated through behavioral tests derived from the logical properties of reflexivity, symmetry, and transitivity. If these properties are confirmed, one can say that those stimuli are members of an equivalence class in which each member is substitutable for the others. A number of studies, which have established equivalence classes comprised of arbitrary stimuli and pictures of faces expressing emotions, have found that valences of the faces affect the relatedness of equivalent stimuli. Importantly, several studies reported stronger relational strength in equivalence classes containing happy faces than in equivalence classes containing angry faces. The processes that may account for this higher degree of relatability of happy faces are not yet known. The current study investigated the dynamics of the symbolic relational responding involving facial expressions of different emotions by means of the Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure (IRAP). Participants were 186 undergraduate students who were taught to establish two equivalence classes, each comprising pictures of faces expressing either happiness (for one class) or a negative emotion (for another class), and meaningless words. The IRAP effect was taken as an index for the relational strength established between equivalent stimuli in the different equivalence classes. The dynamics of arbitrary relational responding in the course of the four IRAP trial types revealed that the participants exhibited a stronger IRAP effect in trials involving the happy faces and a weaker IRAP effect in trials involving the negative faces. These findings indicate that the happy faces had higher impact on the symbolic relational responding than the negative faces. The potential role played by the orienting function of happy vs. negative faces is discussed. By considering other studies that also reported a happiness superiority effect in other contexts, we present converging evidence for the prioritization of positive affect in emotional, categorical, and symbolic processing.
Original languageEnglish
Article number954
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 30 Apr 2019


  • symbolic behavior
  • stimulus equivalence
  • Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure
  • facial expressions
  • happiness superiority effect


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