Since yesterday’s post on attention grabbed so much, well, attention, let’s try another one. Only this time, instead of looking at what factors cause us to pay attention to something, we’ll consider an experiment that studied the emotional effects of attention. If you’re asked to look for people with blond hair, for example, you may eventually come to have a different emotional response to people with blond hair than others.
A team led by Mark Fenske developed a simple procedure to see if the focus of our attention can affect emotion. Twenty-four college students participated in a task that they were told was to test reaction time: two pictures of faces appeared on screen for two seconds. For a brief interval in the middle of the task, one of the faces was obscured by a semi-transparent red or green oval. If a green oval flashed, then participants had to press a designated number on the keypad as quickly as possible (4 for the left face, and 6 for the right face). If a red oval flashed, then participants were instructed NOT to respond.
Next was the evaluation phase. The screen went black for a second, then both faces flashed on screen for 15 hundredths of a second and disappeared again. Participants were asked one of four questions: which face is on a lighter background, which face is on a darker background, which person is more trustworthy, and which person is less trustworthy. The task was repeated 96 times. For a second group of participants, the colors were reversed: red meant press a button, and green meant do nothing. When the viewers were asked to react, there was no difference in their responses to any of the questions. However, following a sequence when viewers had to restrain from pushing a button in the initial task, an interesting result occurred:
If the oval had had no impact at all, one would expect that the responses would be equal: 50 percent choosing each face. Since the ovals appeared randomly on the faces, there shouldn’t be a bias in choosing background color, but when asked about background color, participants chose the uncued face more often than the cued face. The emotional responses were even more dramatic, as the images which participants had previously been asked to ignore were more often rated as less trustworthy, and less often rated as trustworthy.
It appears that being asked not to pay attention to a face can cause participants to believe that face is not trustworthy, even though the faces were chosen at random. So attention — or more precisely, inhibition of attention — appears to affect emotional responses.
Fenske, M.J., Raymond, J.E., Kessler, K., Westoby, N., & Tipper, S.P. (2005). Attentional inhibition has social-emotional consequences for unfamiliar faces. Psychological Science, 16(10), 753-758.