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Int J Psychophysiol. 2010 May;76(2):64-71. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2010.02.004. Epub 2010 Feb 19.

Motivational priming and processing interrupt: startle reflex modulation during shallow and deep processing of emotional words.

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Department of Psychology, University of Wuerzburg, Wuerzburg, Germany; Department of Psychology, University of Konstanz, Konstanz, Germany.


Valence-driven modulation of the startle reflex, that is larger eyeblinks during viewing of unpleasant pictures and inhibited blinks while viewing pleasant pictures, is well documented. The current study investigated, whether this motivational priming pattern also occurs during processing of unpleasant and pleasant words, and to what extent it is influenced by shallow vs. deep encoding of verbal stimuli. Emotional and neutral adjectives were presented for 5s, and the acoustically elicited startle eyeblink response was measured while subjects memorized the words by means of shallow or deep processing strategies. Results showed blink potentiation to unpleasant and blink inhibition to pleasant adjectives in subjects using shallow encoding strategies. In subjects using deep-encoding strategies, blinks were larger for pleasant than unpleasant or neutral adjectives. In line with this, free recall of pleasant words was also better in subjects who engaged in deep processing. The results suggest that motivational priming holds as long as processing is perceptual. However, during deep processing the startle reflex appears to represent a measure of "processing interrupt", facilitating blinks to those stimuli that are more deeply encoded.

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