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Evol Psychol. 2012 Apr 15;10(2):187-97.

The lurking snake in the grass: interference of snake stimuli in visually taxing conditions.

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Department of Education, University of Aveiro, Portugal.


Based on evolutionary considerations, it was hypothesized that humans have been shaped to easily spot snakes in visually cluttered scenes that might otherwise hide camouflaged snakes. This hypothesis was tested in a visual search experiment in which I assessed automatic attention capture to evolutionarily-relevant distractor stimuli (snakes), in comparison with another animal which is also feared but where this fear has a disputed evolutionary origin (spiders), and neutral stimuli (mushrooms). Sixty participants were engaged in a task that involved the detection of a target (a bird) among pictures of fruits. Unexpectedly, on some trials, a snake, a spider, or a mushroom replaced one of the fruits. The question of interest was whether the distracting stimuli slowed the reaction times for finding the target (the bird) to different degrees. Perceptual load of the task was manipulated by increments in the set size (6 or 12 items) on different trials. The findings showed that snake stimuli were processed preferentially, particularly under conditions where attentional resources were depleted, which reinforced the role of this evolutionarily-relevant stimulus in accessing the visual system (Isbell, 2009).

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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