CA Conway, BC Jones, LM DeBruine, LLM Welling, MJ Law Smith, DI Perrett, M Sharp & EAS Al-Dujaili (2007). Salience of emotional displays of danger and contagion in faces is enhanced when progesterone levels are raised. Hormones and Behavior, 51(2): 202-206. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2006.10.002

Findings from previous studies of hormone-mediated behavior in women suggest that raised progesterone level increases the probability of behaviors that will reduce the likelihood of disruption to fetal development during pregnancy (e.g. increased avoidance of sources of contagion). Here, we tested women’s (N=52) sensitivity to potential cues to nearby sources of contagion (disgusted facial expressions with averted gaze) and nearby physical threat (fearful facial expressions with averted gaze) at two points in the menstrual cycle differing in progesterone level. Women demonstrated a greater tendency to perceive fearful and disgusted expressions with averted gaze as more intense than those with direct gaze when their progesterone level was relatively high. By contrast, change in progesterone level was not associated with any change in perceptions of happy expressions with direct and averted gaze, indicating that our findings for disgusted and fearful expressions were not due to a general response bias. Collectively, our findings suggest women are more sensitive to facial cues signalling nearby contagion and physical threat when raised progesterone level prepares the body for pregnancy.

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