Attentional capture by irrelevant emotional distractor faces is contingent on implicit attentional settings

Cognition and Emotion 32 (2):303-314 (2017)
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Although expressions of facial emotion hold a special status in attention relative to other complex objects, whether they summon our attention automatically and against our intentions remains a debated issue. Studies supporting the strong view that attentional capture by facial expressions of emotion is entirely automatic reported that a unique emotional face distractor interfered with search for a target that was also unique on a different dimension. Participants could therefore search for the odd-one out face to locate the target and attentional capture by irrelevant emotional faces might be contingent on the adoption of an implicit set for singletons. Here, confirming this hypothesis, an irrelevant emotional face captured attention when the target was the unique face with a discrepant orientation, both when this orientation was unpredictable and when it remained constant. By contrast, no such capture was observed when the target could not be found by monitoring displays for a discrepant face and participants had to search for a face with a specific orientation. Our findings show that attentional capture by emotional faces is not purely stimulus driven and thereby resolve the apparent inconsistency that prevails in the literature on the automaticity of attentional capture by emotional faces.



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