People look at the object they fear: oculomotor capture by stimuli that signal threat

Abstract

It is known that people covertly attend to threatening stimuli even when it is not beneficial for the task. In the current study we examined whether overt selection is affected by the presence of an object that signals threat. We demonstrate that stimuli that signal the possibility of receiving an electric shock capture the eyes more often than stimuli signalling no shock. Capture occurred even though the threat-signalling stimulus was neither physically salient nor task relevant at any point during the experiment. Crucially, even though fixating the threat-related stimulus made it more likely to receive a shock, results indicate that participants could not help but doing it. Our findings indicate that the presence of a stimulus merely signalling the possibility of receiving a shock is prioritised in selection, and exogenously captures the eyes even when this ultimately results in the execution of the threat (i.e. receiving a shock). Oculomotor capture was particularly pronounced for the fastest saccades which is consistent with the idea that threat influences visual selection at an early stage of processing, when selection is mainly involuntarily.

Publication
Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 79(8), 2275-2298. (* shared first authorship)