Attentional capture to alcohol related stimuli may be activated involuntarily by top-down search goals

Chris Brown, Theodora Duka, Sophie Forster

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Previous research has found that the attention of social drinkers is preferentially oriented towards alcohol-related stimuli (attentional capture). This is argued to play a role in escalating craving for alcohol that can result in hazardous drinking. According to incentive theories of drug addiction, the stimuli associated with the drug reward acquire learned incentive salience and grab attention. However, it is not clear whether the mechanism by which this bias is created is a voluntary or an automatic one, although some evidence suggests a stimulus-driven mechanism. Here, we test for the first time whether this attentional capture could reflect an involuntary consequence of a goal-driven mechanism. Across three experiments, participants were given search goals to detect either an alcoholic or a non-alcoholic object (target) in a stream of briefly presented objects unrelated to the target. Prior to the target, a task-irrelevant parafoveal distractor appeared. This could either be congruent or incongruent with the current search goal. Applying a meta-analysis, we combined the results across the three experiments and found consistent evidence of goal-driven attentional capture, whereby alcohol distractors impeded target detection when the search goal was for alcohol. By contrast, alcohol distractors did not interfere with target detection, whilst participants were searching for a non-alcoholic category. A separate experiment revealed that the goal-driven capture effect was not found when participants held alcohol features active in memory but did not intentionally search for them. These findings suggest a strong goal-driven account of attentional capture by alcohol cues in social drinkers.
Original languageEnglish
Article number235
Pages (from-to)2087-2099
Number of pages12
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 25 Apr 2018

Cite this