Introduction: Subliminal affective priming effects (SAPEs) refer to the phenomenon by which the presentation of an affective prime stimulus influences the subsequent affective evaluation of a target stimulus. Previous studies have reported that unconsciously processed stimuli affect behavioral performance more than consciously processed stimuli. However, the impact of SAPEs on the face-specific N170 component is unclear. We studied how SAPEs for fearful faces affected the N170 for subsequent supraliminal target faces using event-related potentials (ERPs). Methods: Japanese adults (n = 44, 20 females) participated in this study. Subliminal prime faces (neutral or fearful) were presented for 17 ms, followed by a backward mask for 283 ms and 800 ms target faces (neutral, emotionally ambiguous, or fearful). 128-channel ERPs were recorded while participants judged the expression of target faces as neutral or fearful. Response rates and response times were also measured for assessing behavioral alterations. Results: Although the behavioral results revealed no evidence of SAPEs, we found gender-related SAPEs in right N170 amplitude. Specifically, female participants exhibited enhanced right N170 amplitude for emotionally neutral faces primed by fearful faces, while male participants exhibited decreased N170 amplitude in fearful prime trials with fearful target faces. Male participants exhibited significant correlations between N170 amplitude and behavioral response time in the fearful prime-neutral target condition. Conclusions: Our ERP results suggest the existence of a gender difference in target-face processing preceded by subliminally presented face stimuli in the right occipito-temporal region.
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