Are Visual Threats Prioritized Without Awareness? A Critical Review and Meta-Analysis Involving 3 Behavioral Paradigms and 2696 Observers

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Abstract

Given capacity limits, only a subset of stimuli give rise to a conscious percept. Neurocognitive models suggest that humans have evolved mechanisms that operate without awareness and prioritize threatening stimuli over neutral stimuli in subsequent perception. In this meta-analysis, we review evidence for this ‘standard hypothesis’ emanating from 3 widely used, but rather different experimental paradigms that have been used to manipulate awareness. We found a small pooled threat-bias effect in the masked visual probe paradigm, a medium effect in the binocular rivalry paradigm and highly inconsistent effects in the breaking continuous flash suppression paradigm. Substantial heterogeneity was explained by the stimulus type: the only threat stimuli that were robustly prioritized across all 3 paradigms were fearful faces. Meta regression revealed that anxiety may modulate threat-biases, but only under specific presentation conditions. We also found that insufficiently rigorous awareness measures, inadequate control of response biases and low level confounds may undermine claims of genuine unconscious threat processing. Considering the data together, we suggest that uncritical acceptance of the standard hypothesis is premature: current behavioral evidence for threat-sensitive visual processing that operates without awareness is weak.

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