But What About the Empress of Racnoss? The Allocation of Attention to Spiders and Doctor Who in a Visual Search Task Is Predicted by Fear and Expertise

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Abstract

If there is a spider in the room, then the spider phobic in your group is most likely to point it out to you. This phenomenon is believed to arise because our attentional systems are hardwired to attend to threat in our environment, and, to a spider phobic, spiders are threatening. However, an alternative explanation is simply that attention is quickly drawn to the stimulus of most personal relevance in the environment. Our research examined whether positive stimuli with no biological or evolutionary relevance could be allocated preferential attention. We compared attention to pictures of spiders with pictures from the TV program Doctor Who, for people who varied in both their love of Doctor Who and their fear of spiders. We found a double dissociation: interference from spider and Doctor-Who-related images in a visual search task was predicted by spider fear and Doctor Who expertise, respectively. As such, allocation of attention reflected the personal relevance of the images rather than their threat content. The attentional system believed to have a causal role in anxiety disorders is therefore likely to be a general system that responds not to threat but to stimulus relevance; hence, nonevolutionary images, such as those from Doctor Who, captured attention as quickly as fear-relevant spider images. Where this leaves the Empress of Racnoss, we are unsure.

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