The Attraction of Emotions: Irrelevant Emotional Information Modulates Motor Actions

By Ambron, Elisabetta; Foroni, Francesco | Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, August 2015 | Go to article overview

The Attraction of Emotions: Irrelevant Emotional Information Modulates Motor Actions


Ambron, Elisabetta, Foroni, Francesco, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review


Published online: 4 December 2014

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract Emotional expressions are important cues that capture our attention automatically. Although a wide range of work has explored the role and influence of emotions on cognition and behavior, little is known about the way that emotions influence motor actions. Moreover, considering how critical detecting emotional facial expressions in the environment can be, it is important to understand their impact even when they are not directly relevant to the task being performed. Our novel approach was to explore this issue from the attention-and-action perspective, using a task-irrelevant distractor paradigm in which participants are asked to reach for a target while a nontarget stimulus is also presented. We tested whether the movement trajectory would be influenced by irrelevant stimuli-faces with or without emotional expressions. The results showed that reaching paths veered toward faces with emotional expressions, in particular happiness, but not toward neutral expressions. This reinforces the view of emotions as attention-capturing stimuli that are, however, also potential sources of distraction for motor actions.

Keywords Reaching movements . Distractor effect . Emotional faces . Happy face . Angry face

While navigating in daily life, we are bombarded by stimuli of all sorts that may grab our attention. In order to successfully perform in such complex environment, our attentional system needs to sort relevant from irrelevant information. However, irrelevant information may attract our attention exogenously and influence our behavior (Moher & Song, 2013), without us being fully aware of this process. Contemporarily, the ability to automatically detect emotional expressions, even when we are engaged in another task, is essential for survival, in order to execute the appropriate actions or initiate/avoid important social interactions (cf. Fockenberg, Koole, Lakens, & Semin, 2013; Hodsoll, Viding, & Lavie, 2011). Failing to detect an angry expression on the street, for instance, may result in unpleasant detrimental consequences, just as being unable to detect a smiling potential mate across the bar may lead to missing out on an opportunity. In this sense, emotions are important cues that capture our attention automatically (Langton, Law, Burton, & Schweinberger, 2008) and potentially drive our actions.

The role of emotions extends to all aspects of cognition and behavior (see Cacioppo & Gardner, 1999), from attention and perception (Niedenthal & Kitayama, 1994;Zajonc, 1998), to memory (Bradley et al., 1995; Cahill, 1996; Phelps & Anderson, 1997), reasoning, and decision making (Forgas, 1995; Johnson & Tversky, 1983; Schwarz & Clore, 1996). A growing body of research has investigated the effects of emotional facial expressions on attention with respect to neutral faces, by implementing a visual search task and showing consistently that the emotional content of faces affects the extent to which attention is paid to a face, producing a detrimental impact on task performance (Hodsoll et al., 2011).

Although the role of emotions has been widely investigated, little is known about whether emotions may affect simple reaching movements and interfere with ongoing goal-directed actions. The relevance of this topic is that simple reaching movements allow for the systematic investigation of automatic default motor mechanisms of types that are ubiquitous in our daily lives (see Milner, 1996). Moreover, such research allows for studying the relationship between attention and action, providing a wide range of information, which goes beyond button pressing and reaction times, which are considered a measure of processing and movement planning (Rosenbaum, 1985). For instance, the spatial and temporal parameters of reaching movements provide a large variety of additional information, including details regarding movement trajectories that have more direct links to more complex behaviors. …

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