Attentional avoidance of threatening stimuli

Abstract

Aversive conditioning has been shown to influence the control of attention, such that aversively conditioned stimuli receive elevated priority. Although aversively conditioned but task-irrelevant distractors are known to capture attention during speeded search in rapid orienting tasks, it is unclear whether this bias extends to situations where orienting can be more deliberate. We demonstrate that punishment, via electric shock, does not give rise to oculomotor capture by shock-associated stimuli during a foraging task; rather, such aversively conditioned stimuli are actively avoided when searching through a display. On the other hand, even during a foraging task, we found some evidence for a covert attentional bias to threat. Our findings indicate that the previously described effects of aversive conditioning on visual search may not generalize beyond the initial glance and can be suppressed when conditions allow for more deliberate search strategies. More generally, our findings reveal that sustained attentional avoidance of aversively conditioned stimuli is possible during active search.

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Data availability statement

Raw data and experiment code for both experiments is available on the Open Science Framework (https://osf.io/kgp45/).

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Funding

This study was supported by Grants from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (NARSAD 26008) and NIH (R01-DA046410) to BAA.

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Correspondence to Brian A. Anderson.

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Britton, M.K., Anderson, B.A. Attentional avoidance of threatening stimuli. Psychological Research 85, 82–90 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-019-01255-6

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