Fearful, But Not Angry, Expressions Diffuse Attention to Peripheral Targets in an Attentional Blink Paradigm

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Abstract

We previously demonstrated that fearful facial expressions implicitly facilitate memory for contextual events whereas angry facial expressions do not. The current study sought to more directly address the implicit effect of fearful expressions on attention for contextual events within a classic attentional paradigm (i.e., the attentional blink) in which memory is tested on a trial-by-trial basis, thereby providing subjects with a clear, explicit attentional strategy. Neutral faces of a single gender were presented via rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) while bordered by four gray pound signs. Participants were told to watch for a gender change within the sequence (T1). It is critical to note that the T1 face displayed a neutral, fearful, or angry expression. Subjects were then told to detect a color change (i.e., gray to green; T2) at one of the four peripheral pound sign locations appearing after T1. This T2 color change could appear at one of six temporal positions. Complementing previous attentional blink paradigms, participants were told to respond via button press immediately when a T2 target was detected. We found that, compared with the neutral T1 faces, fearful faces significantly increased target detection ability at four of the six temporal locations (all ps < .05) whereas angry expressions did not. The results of this study demonstrate that fearful facial expressions can uniquely and implicitly enhance environmental monitoring above and beyond explicit attentional effects related to task instructions.

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