Neural evidence that inhibition is linked to the affective devaluation of distractors that match the contents of working memory

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Stimuli appearing as visual distractors subsequently receive more negative affective evaluations than novel items or prior targets of attention. Leading accounts question whether this distractor devaluation effect occurs through evaluative codes that become associated with distractors as a mere artefact of attention-task instructions, or through affective consequences of attentional inhibition when applied to prevent distractor interference. Here we test opposing predictions arising from the evaluative-coding and devaluation-by-inhibition hypotheses using an electrophysiological marker of attentional inhibition in a task that requires participants to avoid interference from abstract-shape distractors presented while maintaining a uniquely-colored stimulus in memory. Consistent with prior research, distractors that matched the colour of the stimulus being held in memory elicited a Pd component of the event-related potential waveform, indicating that their processing was being actively suppressed. Subsequent affective evaluations revealed that memory-matching distractors also received more negative ratings than non-matching distractors or previously-unseen shapes. Moreover, Pd magnitude was greater on trials in which the memory-matching distractors were later rated negatively than on trials preceding positive ratings. These results support the devaluation-by-inhibition hypothesis and strongly suggest that fluctuations in stimulus inhibition are closely associated with subsequent affective evaluations. In contrast, none of the evaluative-coding based predictions were confirmed.

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