Are we more likely to notice arousing things, or just more likely to remember them?

Last week we discussed two experiments in a report by Adam Anderson about how the phenomenon of attentional blink is modified when the task includes arousing words. Perhaps not surprisingly, we're more likely to notice arousing words like "ejaculate" or "foreplay" in a rapidly presented sequence than neutral words like "plane" or "clock."

But Anderson wasn't finished—he wanted to explain why this phenomenon occurs. Are we more likely to remember arousing words after the fact? Or are arousing words inherently more able to attract our attention? So, Anderson reversed the attentional blink task. As before, participants were shown a rapidly flashed sequence of words, appearing randomly in different colors. The task was to identify two words displayed in different colors from the rest: a first word displayed in white, and a second green word. The white "word" was always a sequence of digits (00000000000, 55555555555), and the second word was a neutral word (mirror, surplus). However, all the other words in the sequence were randomly chosen from either a set of arousing or neutral words. Given this massive distraction, how accurate were participants at identifying the words?


Overall, compared to previous experiments, they were much less accurate—and when the distractors were arousing, performance was consistently worse than for neutral distractors. Given that in both cases, participants are not being asked to remember the arousing words, this result suggests that the diminished attentional blink associated with arousing words is not due to arousing words being more memorable, but because they are more likely to attract our attention in the first place.

But perhaps when we see an arousing word, we direct more attention to it because we exclude other objects from our attention. Seen this way, attention is a matter of different inputs competing for our mind's limited processing resources. Perhaps arousing words are simply those that are better able to use these resources. The other possibility is that attention overall is improved when we are aroused. To try to differentiate between these possibilities, Anderson designed another experiment. As in previous experiments, participants were asked to identify two words, one displayed in white and a second in green, among a rapidly presented list of distractor words in black. This time, participants were encouraged to identify the first word (actually either a sequence of Xs or Os) as rapidly as possible. The second word was either an arousing or a neutral word. The basic results were the same as in other tests: for neutral words, an attentional blink occurred for about 400 milliseconds after the first word, and for arousing words, this blink was diminished. But I want to focus in on another set of results, which compare reaction time for the first word with accuracy on the second word:


Participants who had the fastest reaction times to the first word (in quartile 1) were also the most accurate at identifying the second word. However, when viewing arousing words, accuracy remained relatively high regardless of reaction time. With neutral second words, accuracy diminished as response time increased. This result too suggests that arousing words aren't merely more memorable than neutral words—they're better at attracting our attention in the first place. Even more interesting is how quickly this effect occurs. Anderson switched between arousing and neutral words between each trial of the experiment. So the arousing words aren't simply increasing our overall attentive state, they're intrinsically more noticeable.

If these words increased our overall ability, we should see some increase in attention to non-arousing words. Instead attending to these words appears to be a spur-of-the-moment thing: we notice them when they're there; we don't notice other words under similar circumstances.

What does this suggest about the attention system overall? While it's certainly an indepent system of the mind (we still attend to new things even while doing something else), it's also linked into other systems. Emotion, as shown in Anderson's work, has a critical link to attention. Unraveling how these different systems interact with each other will become a critical part of the study of cognition in the future.

Anderson, A.K. (2005). Affective influences on the attentional dynamics supporting awareness. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 134(2), 258-281.

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