Testing a goal-driven account of involuntary attentional capture by threat

Chris Brown, Nick Berggren, Sophie Forster

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Attention has long been characterized within prominent models as reflecting a competition between goal-driven and stimulus-driven processes. It remains unclear, however, how involuntary attentional capture by affective stimuli, such as threat-laden content, fits into such models. Although such effects were traditionally thought to reflect stimulus-driven processes, recent research has increasingly implicated a critical role of goal-driven processes. Here we test an alternative goal-driven account of involuntary attentional capture by threat using an experimental manipulation of goal-driven attention. To this end we combined the classic contingent capture and emotion-induced blink paradigms in an RSVP task with both positive or threatening target search goals. Across 6 experiments, positive and threat distractors were presented in peripheral, parafoveal, and central locations. Across all distractor locations we found that involuntary attentional capture by irrelevant threat distractors could be induced via the adoption of a search goal for a threatening category; adopting a goal for a positive category conversely led to capture only by positive stimuli. Our findings provide direct experimental evidence for a causal role of voluntary goals in involuntary capture by irrelevant threat stimuli, and hence demonstrate the plausibility of a top-down account of this phenomenon. We discuss the implications of these findings in relation to current cognitive models of attention and clinical disorders.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20
Pages (from-to)572-589
Number of pages17
Publication statusPublished - 2020

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