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Effect of partial occlusion on newborns’ face preference and recognition


Address for correspondence: Lucia Gava, Dipartimento di Psicologia dello Sviluppo e della Socializzazione, via Venezia 8, 35131 Padova, Italy; e-mail:


Many studies have shown that newborns prefer (e.g. Goren, Sarty & Wu, 1975; Valenza, Simion, Macchi Cassia & Umiltà, 1996) and recognize (e.g. Bushnell, Say & Mullin, 1989; Pascalis & de Schonen, 1994) faces. However, it is not known whether, at birth, faces are still preferred and recognized when some of their parts are not visible because hindered by other configurations, that is when faces are partly occluded. Also, it is not known whether newborns’ preference for an upright over an inverted face and newborns’ face recognition are differentially affected depending on the salience of the occluded face features. Seventy-seven newborns (mean age of 43.5 hrs) were tested using the preferential looking (Experiment 1) and the habituation techniques (Experiment 2). Results demonstrated that newborns prefer and recognize occluded faces even if some portions of them are not available, at least when the hindered features are not salient. On the contrary, these abilities are affected by obscuring high salience facial features (i.e. eyes). However, while in the case of face detection, eyes occlusion completely prevented newborns’ face detection, in the case of face recognition an analogous stimulus manipulation heavily impaired, but did not totally preclude, newborns’ recognition performance. The data collected improve our comprehension of newborns’ way of processing and encoding information to detect and recognize faces.