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Jan Theeuwes, Lisette J. Schmidt, Artem V. Belopolsky; Attentional capture by signals of threat. Journal of Vision 2014;14(10):321. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/14.10.321.
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The expectation of punishment and reward is known to be the driving force behind adaptive behavior and learning as it fosters motivational control. A lot is known about the motivational effect of punishment and reward (e.g. Engelman & Pessoa, 2007). Recently several studies have indicated the importance of reward in guiding attention, as stimuli that are associated with reward automatically capture attention, even in the absence of an explicit reward (Anderson et al., 2011; Hickey et al, 2010; Theeuwes & Belopolsky, 2012). Not much is known about the effect of punishment on attentional processing. The present study investigated whether a neutral stimulus which became associated with fear, captured attention in visual search. Using a fear conditioning procedure, one stimulus was repeatedly combined with an electrical shock (CS+), whereas another stimulus with identical physical features was never combined with a shock (CS-). Following conditioning, participants had to search for a target while on some trials, either an irrelevant CS+ or CS- stimulus was present. The results show that the presence of an irrelevant distractor with a learned fear association slowed search more than a distractor without fear association The present study shows that the presence of irrelevant threatening stimuli interferes with the completion of explicit task requirements. Even though all stimuli were initially neutral and did not differ in their physical salience, fear conditioning made one stimulus more salient than the other causing a magnification of attentional capture. Similar to the earlier studies showing an effect of reward on attention, the current results indicates that learned fear associations have the ability to grab our attention even if we try to avoid them. It is consistent with previous studies showing that stimuli with emotional value are prioritized in visual selection.
Meeting abstract presented at VSS 2014
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