Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Negative Emotional Photographs Are Identified More Slowly Than Positive Photographs

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Negative Emotional Photographs Are Identified More Slowly Than Positive Photographs

Article excerpt

Published online: 27 April 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract In three experiments, we investigated whether the emotional valence of a photograph influenced the amount of time required to initially identify the contents of the image. In Experiment 1, participants saw a slideshow consisting of positive, neutral, and negative photographs that were balanced for arousal. During the slideshow, presentation time was substantially limited (60 ms), and the images were followed by masks. Immediately following the slideshows, participants were given a recognition memory test. Memory performance was best for positive images and worst for negative images (Experiment 1). In Experiment 2, two simultaneous photographs were briefly presented and masked. On a trial-by-trial basis, participants indicated whether the two images were identical or not, thus removing the need for memory storage and retrieval. Again, performance was worst for negative images. The results of Experiment 3 suggested that these valence-based differences were not related attentional effects (Experiment 3). We argue that the valence of an image is detected rapidly and, in the case of negative images, interferes with processing the identity of the scene.

Keywords Visual awareness . Visual perception . Scene perception . Emotion . Emotional scenes

Researchers have theorized that evolutionary pressure should have shaped mechanisms to ensure that emotional stimuli are rapidly detected, promote learning, and are remembered well (for review, see Phelps & LeDoux, 2005). This theory has spurred a great deal of research suggesting that emotional stimuli (Anderson, 2005), and particularly negative or threatening stimuli (Fox et al., 2000; Öhman, Flykt, & Esteves, 2001), experience processing advantages relative to nonemotional stimuli (for review, see Vuilleumier, 2005).

There is consensus that these emotional effects on cognitive processing are mediated by activation of the amygdala (Armony, Servan-Schreiber, Cohen, & LeDoux, 1997; LeDoux, 2000). Subcortical projections to the amygdala may allow for the rapid evaluation of the emotional relevance of stimuli (Morris, DeGelder, Weiskrantz, & Dolan, 2001; Pasley, Mayes, & Schultz, 2004; Vuilleumier, Armony, Driver, & Dolan, 2003). Although these subcortical projections may allow for a rapid emotional response, this rapid emotional response most likely precedes the conscious identification of the emotional stimulus. That is, the amygdala might indicate that a stimulus is negative prior to the viewer having conscious recognition of whether the stimulus is a spider or an angry face. The conscious recognition of the identity of the emotional stimulus requires cortical processing of the stimulus within the ventral visual processing stream (Mishkin, Ungerleider, & Macko, 1983; Ungerleider & Haxby, 1994).

Researchers have, however, posited that rapid amygdala activation is an early process that helps ensure that emotional stimuli benefit from additional cortical processing, thereby ensuring that these emotionally charged stimuli reach conscious awareness.

There are two mechanisms by which amygdala activity may support the rapid identification of emotionally charged stimuli. First, detection of the emotional valence by the amygdala may influence attention mechanisms, resulting in a rapid shiftof attention toward the emotional stimulus. Second, it has been proposed that detection by the amygdala can increase vigilance (Armony et al., 1997) and, via direct connections fromthe amygdala to perceptual cortices (Amaral, Behniea, & Kelly, 2003), may increase the gain of those perceptual units responsible for processing the emotional stimulus (Phelps & LeDoux, 2005).

The attention-based theory suggests that emotional stimuli will be identified quickly because they are prioritized during the competition for attention. Thus, when multiple objects compete for attention, emotional objects will be selected and identified before nonemotional objects. …

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