A pox on the mind: Disjunction of attention and memory in the processing of physical disfigurement

Joshua M. Ackerman, David Becker, Chad R. Mortensen, Takao Sasaki, Steven Neuberg, Douglas Kenrick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

160 Scopus citations


The unfavorable treatment of people with physical disfigurements is well-documented, yet little is known about basic perceptual and cognitive responses to disfigurement. Here, we identify a specialized pattern of cognitive processing consistent with the hypothesis that disfigurements act as heuristic cues to contagious disease. Disfigurements are often invariant across time and difficult to conceal, and thus observers can detect the presence of such cues without necessarily remembering the particular individuals bearing these cues. Indeed, despite the fact that disfigured faces were especially likely to hold disease-sensitive perceivers' attention (Study 1), disfigured individuals were often confused with one another and thus not well remembered later (Study 2), revealing a disjunction of the typical relationship between elevated attention and elevated memory. We discuss the implications of our results for stigmatization of people with and without physical abnormalities and suggest the possibility that cognitive mechanisms for processing social information may be functionally tuned to the variant nature of important cues.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)478-485
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2009


  • Attention
  • Disease avoidance
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Face perception
  • Memory
  • Social cognition
  • Threat detection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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