Moving Threat: Attention and Distance Change Interact in Threat Responding

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Defensive reactions need to be quick and appropriate to ensure survival. Thus, it is crucial that threats trigger immediate action upon detection, even in the absence of awareness. In addition, the form of such action should be appropriate to the imminence of the threat. Thus, attention should be guided by signals of increasing threat imminence. We examined whether subliminally presented threat stimuli provoke automatic avoidance tendencies, and whether threat cues’ distance change and threat potential determine attention allocation. Following fear conditioning, participants performed an approach-avoidance task with subliminally presented conditioned threat and safety stimuli, and an attentional bias task with approaching versus distancing signals of threat and safety. Preattentive processing of threat cues resulted in approach rather than avoidance tendencies; attention was captured preferentially by signals of increasing threat imminence. The results support the importance of threat imminence and extend findings of previous research on preattentive influences on defensive responding.

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