The Impact of Negative Affect on Attention Patterns to Threat Across the First 2 Years of Life

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Abstract

The current study examined the relations between individual differences in attention to emotion faces and temperamental negative affect across the first 2 years of life. Infant studies have noted a normative pattern of preferential attention to salient cues, particularly angry faces. A parallel literature suggests that elevated attention bias to threat is associated with anxiety, particularly if coupled with temperamental risk. Examining the emerging relations between attention to threat and temperamental negative affect may help distinguish normative from at-risk patterns of attention. Infants (N = 145) ages 4 to 24 months (M = 12.93 months, SD = 5.57) completed an eye-tracking task modeled on the attention bias “dot-probe” task used with older children and adults. With age, infants spent greater time attending to emotion faces, particularly threat faces. All infants displayed slower latencies to fixate to incongruent versus congruent probes. Neither relation was moderated by temperament. Trial-by-trial analyses found that dwell time to the face was associated with latency to orient to subsequent probes, moderated by the infant’s age and temperament. In young infants low in negative affect longer processing of angry faces was associated with faster subsequent fixation to probes; young infants high in negative affect displayed the opposite pattern at trend. Findings suggest that although age was directly associated with an emerging bias to threat, the impact of processing threat on subsequent orienting was associated with age and temperament. Early patterns of attention may shape how children respond to their environments, potentially via attention’s gate-keeping role in framing a child’s social world for processing.

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