Preparing for the Worst: Attention is Enhanced Prior to Any Upcoming Emotional or Neutral Stimulus

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Do people allocate more or fewer attentional resources when preparing for negative emotional visual stimuli to appear? In three experiments (total N = 150), participants performed a change-detection task while expecting a neutral, threatening, disgusting, or joyful stimulus or no stimulus to appear at a fixed moment. Responses to an infrequent dot probe were faster when participants were expecting a distracting stimulus. Importantly, although only negative stimuli impaired change-detection performance, there was no difference between the preparation effect for threatening and neutral stimuli (Experiment 1) or disgusting and joyful stimuli (Experiment 3). The preparation effects were also unaffected by the participant’s anxiety level. Experiment 2 confirmed that the threatening images affected performance when the dot probe appeared after the image. These results suggest that the visual system increases alertness in response to any upcoming stimulus and further imply that the effects of emotional stimuli largely occur after, but not before, the stimuli appear.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)256-266
Number of pages11
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2021.


  • disgust
  • distractor inhibition
  • preparation effect
  • selective attention
  • threat


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