Stimuli signaling threat are often processed especially rapidly (e.g., Fox, Russo, & Dutton, 2002).
Similarly, some studies have suggested that expressions of fear have a strong pull on our attention
because they signal threat (e.g., Phelps, Ling, & Carrasco, 2006; Shaw, Lien, Ruthruff, & Allen, in press;
Vuilleumier & Schwartz, 2001). These stimuli, however, were typically relevant to the task (i.e., were
targets). The present study questioned whether fearful facial expressions capture attention involuntarily
(i.e., automatically) even when they are irrelevant.
A cuing paradigm was used in the present study. Participants were instructed to search the target
display for a pre-specified target object, which was either a letter in a specific color (Exp. 1) or a face
with a specific emotional expression (Exps. 1-5). The target display was always preceded by a non-informative
cue display, which could contain a fearful face and/or a neutral face. The face could appear
in the same location as the upcoming target (“valid” trials; 25% of the trials) or in a different location
(“invalid” trials; 75% of the trials). The critical measure of attentional capture is the cue validity effect
(Invalid minus valid) on response time (RT) and Proportion error (PE).
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