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Psychon Bull Rev. 2019 Jun;26(3):943-950. doi: 10.3758/s13423-018-1538-2.

The influence of stress on attentional bias to threat: An angry face and a noisy crowd.

Author information

1
Department of Psychology-2765, North Dakota State University, PO Box 6050, Fargo, ND, 58108-6050, USA.
2
Department of Psychology-2765, North Dakota State University, PO Box 6050, Fargo, ND, 58108-6050, USA. clayton.hilmert@ndsu.edu.

Abstract

During stress, attentional capture by threatening stimuli may be particularly adaptive. Individuals are more efficient at identifying threatening faces in a crowd than identifying nonthreatening faces (e.g., Öhman et al., Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130(3): 466-478, 2001a, Öhman et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(3): 381-396, 2001b). However, under conditions of stress, when attention to threat may be most critical, cognitive processes are generally disrupted. The present study explored the attentional advantage of threatening stimuli under stressful conditions. We exposed participants to either high or low stress conditions during a visual search task displaying threatening and nonthreatening facial targets among distractors. Participants' accuracy, reaction times, and self-reported stress were measured. Stress introduced a speed-accuracy trade-off: participants in the high-stress condition were faster, but less accurate, than participants in the low-stress condition. Although both groups of participants showed relative performance advantages in detecting threatening compared with nonthreatening stimuli, this advantage was markedly larger for participants in the high-stress condition. This suggests that the established stress-mediated increase in the activity of the ventral neural network responsible for the reorienting of attention may have enhanced the ability to detect threatening stimuli or buffered the disruptive effects of stress on this process. Our findings highlight the potentially adaptive nature of stress disruption on attentional processes and align research on the anger superiority effect and automated attentional processes under stress.

KEYWORDS:

Attentional capture; Reaction time analysis; Stress; Visual search

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