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Attractive faces are associated with positive character traits and social skills. Moreover, attractive faces automatically evoke larger neural responses than faces of average attractiveness in ventral occipito-temporal cortical areas (such as the fusiform face area), suggesting that ventral visual stream, in addition to identifying objects, evaluates them. It is unclear whether this increased neural response arises from the reward value or the salience of attractive faces. Disfigured faces, by contrast, are linked to negative attributes. We asked participants (N=79) to report their degree of negative attitudes toward people with facial disfigurements and used the Implicit Association Test to assess their negative bias. We then tested competing hypotheses that larger neural responses in visual areas in response to attractive faces represent a reward or a saliency response by testing corresponding responses to faces with disfigurement. While undergoing functional MRI, participants (N=31) viewed photographs of people taken before and after surgical treatment of facial disfigurement and completed an unrelated task (indicating if each photograph depicted a male or female face). While there was no evidence for a self-reported bias, the Implicit Association Test provides behavioural support for a ‘disfigured is bad’ bias. The functional MRI results show that images of facial disfigurement compared to images of the same faces after surgical treatment, evoked greater neural responses within ventral occipito-temporal cortex, consistent with the hypothesis that ventral visual areas respond automatically to the salience of faces, rather than to their rewarding properties. Disfigured faces also produced diminished neural activity within the medial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with empathy and social cognition. This response may reflect suppressed mentalizing and an inhibition of empathy, a mechanism linked to dehumanization.
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