Attention and emotion

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.

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I think that these results could also be interpreted in terms of attribution of processing fluency (e.g., Jacoby & Whitehouse, 1989 Mandler, Nakamura, & Van Zandt, 1987 or Whittlesea & Williams, 2000). When you have to respond, the source of increased fluency is no longer suprising. When you have to inhibit, the fluency may be attributed elsewhere.

I don't think there's anything special about the 15 hundredths of a second -- there was no indication in the report about why that particular interval was chosen; my guess is it's about enough time to notice the two faces, but not enough to really study each face.

Just to play devil's advocate for a second...

What if the test subjects were on to the motives of the researchers? If I were taking this test and a red shape came up, then I was asked which face was least trustworthy, I might (either consciously or subconsciously) try to figure out how the researchers wanted me to respond. I have absolutely no data on these people what-so-ever, so my response is just a shot in the dark. Or is it? What are these researchers trying to get at? I'm probably supposed to think the one covered in red is less trustworthy... I'll say that...

Just a thought. I guess I'm operating under the assumption that people would assume they're supposed to pick the one covered by the red. Maybe an unfounded assumption?

Hah, yet another study biased against dichromats. :p

I was wondering, is there an option to say "I don't know". After all, who is "more trustworthy" is quite a strong statement to make for someone you've seen in a picture.

Maria, I don't think so -- but the idea is really to force people to make a decision, on a hunch, to get a sense of whether the cue is biasing people. Remember, people are repeating the task 96 times, so they get a pretty decent sense of what they're expected to do.

Marinne: I think Mandler et al 1987 and Winkielman & Cacioppo 2001 have shown that fluency affects percieved brightness as well as liking, so I think differences in fluency would have affected all of the judgments in this study.