Distractor Devaluation, or why Dick Cheney might prefer not to be seen with George W. Bush

Standup comics have long made vice president Dick Cheney the butt of their jokes, suggesting that he's never seen in public with the President because he inhabits some fortified underground bunker so as to avoid terrorists or some other unidentified threat, or that he's actually a cyborg, secretly controlling the government from his dark, hidden lair. But recent research in visual attention suggests that there might be another reason Cheney wouldn't want to be seen near the President. It may be that by standing next to a more famous person, your own appeal is diminished.

I'm actually only half-joking about this. Several studies, including one we've analyzed on Cognitive Daily, have taken a look at the relationship between attention and emotion: we respond quicker to emotional faces than neutral faces. Fewer studies have been conducted on the reverse phenomenon: when we search for an object, how do we react to it emotionally?

Take a look at this grid of colorized black-and-white photos: A team led by Jane Raymond showed volunteers similar grids and asked them to search for yellow males.


It's not an especially difficult task, but it does require you to give a quick look at each photo (in this case, pictures of my kids), at least until you've identified the target. In Raymond's team's task, every photo was a different face, which made the task more difficult, but still not at all challenging.

After the correct photo was identified, the volunteers evaluated a black-and-white version of the target photo, rating the person on a scale of 1 to 5 for "trustworthiness." Next, one of the same-gender distractors -- the photos they weren't searching for -- was displayed, again in black and white, and again rated for trustworthiness.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the person who was searched for was rated as more trustworthy than the distractors. But Raymond's team took the analysis a step further, and compared the ratings of pictures immediately next to the target and those farther away. Here are the results:


The distractors next to the target were rated more as less trustworthy than those farther away. In fact, the ratings for faraway distractors weren't significantly different from target ratings. So, it appears, we have emotional reactions based simply on searching a crowd. Apart from the apparent implication that those seeking fame should should avoid the company of those more famous than themselves, this study also has important ramifications for the study of attention and visual search.

Raymond's team argues that people actively inhibit items in a ring around the target of a search. This inhibition corresponds to a negative emotional response to items in that ring. A competing hypothesis, perceptual fluency, had argued the opposite: that searchers become more familiar with the area immediately surrounding the target of a search, because they have studied that area more closely than more distant areas. If this were the case, then the Mere Exposure Effect (the idea that we view things more positively when we're more familiar with them, discussed here) would result in objects nearer to the target being rated higher.

So whatever the cause Dick Cheney's apparent avoidance of the President, there now appears to be evidence that keeping a greater distance from George W. Bush may result in less negative impressions of him. Perhaps unfortunately for Cheney, the public has many opportunities other than visual search to evaluate his trustworthiness.

Raymond, J.E., Fenske, M.J., & Westobe, N (2005). Emotional devaluation of distracting patterns and faces: A consequence of attentional inhibition during visual search? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 31(6), 1404-15.

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Interesting results, I can also think of a related occurence in my own life. In Myer's popular introductory psych textbooks (and no doubt others), there are answer keys for multiple choice questions in the back of the book: 19.1., c.; 19.2., a.; 19.3, d. ... and so on.

They are presented in a continuous line; however, when I go to check the answer for a particular question my eyes seem to automatically go to the correct response for the question i'm working on.

Is it because i'm primed to find the specific number (19.3), as in mere exposure; or are surrounding responses seen as disfavourable, and thus I focus on the one that seems most appealing.

I think that mere exposure must play a part. Then the brain can use that information to find the correct question before I consciously percieve it. The same as in the study: it is an exposure effect, but how the brain handles the information may be more complicated, or differently handled, than when mere exposure leads to liking.

Possibly this is how the mere exposure effect has always worked, but has gone unnoticed.

By Eric Irvine (not verified) on 06 Apr 2006 #permalink

You say the task "does require you to give a quick look at each photo". Not at all. You only need to look at the 5 yellow ones, and of those, on average you'll only need to look at 3.

By Brian O'Hearn (not verified) on 07 Apr 2006 #permalink


You're right that once you've identified the correct photo you don't need to continue searching, but how can you determine if a photo is yellow or blue without looking at it?

"how can you determine if a photo is yellow or blue without looking at it?"

Preattentive processing.

By Brian O'Hearn (not verified) on 07 Apr 2006 #permalink

re: preattentive processing

Actually, this study consisted of three separate experiments (I only summarized the final experiment), and the first two were more in line with your preattentive processing concept. In these studies, only one item was a different color from the rest, so that the visual search was even more rapid than in the face comparison task. The results were similar, suggesting that participants are looking at the distractors, even when it's trivially obvious to tell the difference between a distractor and the target.