Emotional Aftereffects: When Emotion Impairs Subsequent Picture Recognition

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Emotional stimuli induce a state of natural selective attention and receive preferential processing by the brain. While this enables the organism to detect and respond swiftly to life-threatening or—sustaining stimuli, research using variants of the attentional blink paradigm has revealed that this advantage may come at the cost of processing other stimuli in a picture stream. In these studies, participants have to actively search for a target within the stream. However, it has also been shown that the active task set may exert a considerable influence on the outcome in an attentional blink scenario. Accordingly, the present series of studies was designed to test whether proactive emotional cost effects occur in an experimental context that does not implement an active search task set and in which all viewed stimuli are of equal relevance. Toward this end, a recognition memory paradigm was utilized in which participants viewed rapidly presented sequences of emotional and neutral images. Immediately afterward, they had to decide whether a probe stimulus had occurred in the sequence or not. Across 3 studies, images were better remembered when they had been presented after neutral as compared with emotional images. This was the case after both positive and negative emotional images and regardless of whether participants had to memorize all or only nonemotional stimuli. These findings speak to the robustness of proactive emotional cost effects and link recent research examining emotion-induced blindness to classic observations regarding emotional interference in memory tasks.

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