Proactive Deprioritization of Emotional Distractors Enhances Target Perception

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Abstract

There are many situations in which it is important to focus on a task in the face of emotional distraction. Yet, emotional distractors can impair our ability to report items that appear soon after them, an effect known as emotion-induced blindness (EIB). To what degree does it help to know about emotional distractors ahead of time? Can we deprioritize emotional distractors when forewarned that they will appear? To address this question, we tested whether participants could overcome EIB when forewarned about the nature of an emotional distractor. On each trial, participants searched for 1 target (a rotated picture) presented within a rapid serial visual stream of upright images. An aversive, erotic, or neutral distractor could precede the target by either 200 or 400 ms. At the start of some trials, participants were informed which kind of distractor would appear on that trial, but in other trials they received no advance information. Results revealed that the provision of distractor information significantly improved target perception as early as 200 ms following both aversive and erotic distractors. These results suggest that people can “brace themselves” in the service of an attentional task by proactively deprioritizing emotional distractors.

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