Observational learning of threat-related attentional bias

Cognition and Emotion (forthcoming)
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Abstract

Attentional bias to threat has been almost exclusively examined after participants experienced repeated pairings between a conditioned stimulus (CS) and an aversive unconditioned stimulus (US). This study aimed to determine whether threat-related attentional capture can result from observational learning, when participants acquire knowledge of the aversive qualities of a stimulus without themselves experiencing aversive outcomes. Non-clinical young-adult participants (N = 38) first watched a video of an individual (the demonstrator) performing a Pavlovian conditioning task in which one colour was paired with shock (CS+) and another colour was neutral (CS−). They then carried out visual search for a shape-defined target. Oculomotor measures evidenced an attentional bias toward the CS+ colour, suggesting that threat-related attentional capture can ensue from observational learning. Exploratory analyses also revealed that this effect was positively correlated with empathy for the demonstrator. Our findings extend empirical and theoretical knowledge about threat-driven attention and provide valuable insights to better understand the formation of anxiety disorders.

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