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Kestutis Kveraga, Jasmine Boshyan, Reginald Adams, Moshe Bar, Jasmine Mote, Lisa Feldman Barrett; Threat is separable from stimulus negativity in visual scenes. Journal of Vision 2011;11(11):1131. doi: 10.1167/11.11.1131.
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All existing theories assume that the basic affective distinction of a stimulus is its positivity/negativity value. The implicit assumption of these models is that negativity and threat are functionally equivalent qualities of a stimulus. Our study challenges this assumption. Because efficient recognition of threat promotes survival, we hypothesized that the potential of harm is extracted automatically as part of stimulus meaning. We predicted that observers would discriminate between images that were merely negative from those that were also threatening. To test this hypothesis, we obtained negative and neutral scenes containing similar potential threat objects. We subdivided these stimuli into four a priori conditions: 1) direct threat (i.e., a threat to one's person); 2) indirect threat (i.e., a threat to someone else); 3) past threat (i.e., a threat that is no longer viable); and 4) neutral (i.e., no threat). We then asked three groups of observers in a between-subjects design to view and rate the scenes in response to one of the following questions: Group 1) “How much harm could be about to occur to you?”; Group 2) “How much harm could be about to occur to someone else?”; Group 3) “How much harm has already occurred to someone?”. Each group responded to only one of the questions on a scale of 1 to 6 and was unaware of the other questions, or the condition to which the scene belonged. We found that each group classified the three types of negative affective scenes in a highly distinct and consistent pattern (scene type x group interaction F2,4 = 20.7, p = 0), assigning the highest rating to the relevant a priori stimulus condition. We conclude that observers are exquisitely sensitive to the threat context, and demonstrate that they can clearly make a distinction between levels of threat and general negativity.
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