Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Stop What You Are Not Doing! Emotional Pictures Interfere with the Task Not to Respond

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Stop What You Are Not Doing! Emotional Pictures Interfere with the Task Not to Respond

Article excerpt

Previous research has shown that emotional stimuli interfere with ongoing activities. One explanation is that these stimuli draw attention away from the primary task and thereby hamper the correct execution of the task. Another explanation is that emotional stimuli cause a temporary freezing of all ongoing activity. We used a go/no-go task to differentiate between these accounts. According to the attention account, emotional distractors should impair performance on both go and no-go trials. According to the freezing account, the presentation of emotional stimuli should be detrimental to performance on go trials, but beneficial for performance on no-go trials. Our findings confirm the former prediction: Pictures high in emotional arousal impaired performance on no-go trials.

One of the most pervasive and robust effects of emotional stimuli is that they interfere with ongoing activities. For instance, participants have greater difficulties in solving math problems that are presented together with emotionally arousing stimuli (Schimmack, 2005), and they are commonly slower to name the color of emotional words versus that of neutral words (for a review, see Williams, Mathews, & MacLeod, 1996). It is still not clear, however, why emotional stimuli have this effect. Estes and Verges (2008) discussed two types of accounts (see McKenna & Sharma, 2004, for the discussion of another mechanism). First, according to the attentional account, emotional stimuli command attentional resources (see, e.g., Fox, Russo, Bowles, & Dutton, 2001; Schimmack, 2005; Wyble, Sharma, & Bowman, 2008). Fox et al., for instance, hypothesized that attentional dwell time is longer for threatening stimuli than for other stimuli, which aids the processing of the evaluative properties of these stimuli. The fact that emotional stimuli command attention, however, is also detrimental to ongoing processing of other stimuli or other stimulus properties (see, e.g., McKenna & Sharma, 1995), thereby impairing performance on tasks that require the processing of these other stimuli or stimulus properties.

The second account, the freezing account, centers on the idea that emotional stimuli cause a temporary freezing of all ongoing activity (see, e.g., Algom, Chajut, & Lev, 2004; Flykt, 2006; Öhman, Flykt, & Esteves, 2001). This view is based on animal studies about fear bradycardia, a heart-rate deceleration in response to threat (see, e.g., Campbell, Wood, & McBride, 1997). It has been postulated that the function of this defensive immobility is that it helps the animal avoid attracting predators' attention (see, e.g., Lang, Bradley, & Cuthbert, 1997). Recent studies with human participants have examined motor inhibition in response to threatening pictures. Wilkowski and Robinson (2006), for instance, have shown that negative primes decrease the speed of motor execution. Moreover, several studies (e.g., Azevedo et al., 2005; Facchinetti, Imbiriba, Azevedo, Vargas, & Volchan, 2006) have revealed that participants' body sway was reduced significantly when they were presented with negative pictures. This has been taken as support for the freezing account.

In sum, the attention account and the freezing account differ with regard to the mechanism that is assumed to be responsible for interruption effects (i.e., attention being drawn away from the main task vs. freezing of all activity) and the function that this mechanism serves (i.e., prioritized processing of the emotional features of stimuli vs. avoiding detection by predators). They also lead to different predictions. According to the attention account, emotional stimuli should interfere with all effortful tasks (i.e., tasks that require mental resources). According to the freezing account, however, emotional stimuli should facilitate the performance of tasks that involve the freezing of ongoing activity.

We know of only one set of experiments that has provided information about this differential prediction. …

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