Safety First: Instrumentality for Reaching Safety Determines Attention Allocation Under Threat

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Abstract

Theories of attention to emotional information suggest that attentional processes prioritize threatening information. In this article, we suggest that attention will prioritize the events that are most instrumental to a goal in any given context, which in threatening situations is typically reaching safety. To test our hypotheses, we used an attentional cueing paradigm that contained cues signaling imminent threat (i.e., aversive noises) as well as cues that allowed participants to avoid threat (instrumental safety signals). Correct reactions to instrumental safety signals seemingly allowed participants to lower the presentation rate of the threat. Experiment 1 demonstrates that attention prioritizes instrumental safety signals over threat signals. Experiment 2 replicates this finding and additionally compares instrumental safety signals to other action-relevant signals controlling for action relevance as cause of the effects. Experiment 3 demonstrates that when actions toward threat signals permit to avoid threat, attention prioritizes threat signals. Taken together, these results support the view that instrumentality for reaching safety determines the allocation of attention under threat.

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