Contrasting Reactive and Proactive Control of Emotional Distraction

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Attending to emotional stimuli is often beneficial, because they provide important social and environmental cues. Sometimes, however, current goals require that we ignore them. To what extent can we control emotional distraction? Here we show that the ability to ignore emotional distractions depends on the type of cognitive control that is engaged. Participants completed a simple perceptual task at fixation while irrelevant images appeared peripherally. In 2 experiments, we manipulated the proportion of trials in which images appeared, to encourage use of either reactive control (rare distractors) or proactive control (frequent distractors). Under reactive control, both negative and positive images were more distracting than neutral images, even though they were irrelevant and appeared in unattended locations. However, under proactive control, distraction by both emotional and neutral images was eliminated. Proactive control was triggered by the meaning, and not the location, of distracting images. Our findings argue against simple bottom-up or top-down explanations of emotional distraction, and instead show how the flexible use of cognitive control supports adaptive processing of emotional distractors.

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