What is it about?

Emotionally-charged objects have been shown to automatically activate key brain areas, suc as the amygdala and the periaqueductal gray. As a consequence, they are also said to be processed and understood without effort or conscious control. Here, we asked if these cues – even when they are tangential to an ongoing task – exert a distracting effect that interferes with performance. An important innovation of our work (over prior studies) is that we addressed the fact that not all emotionally-charged objects are equivalent, and thus those with certain emotions may be more (or less) easy to inhibit. More specifically, we examined the extent to which people could ignore emotional pictures (those that were threatening, negative, or positive), using emotionally-neutral pictures as a baseline. Primary task performance involved visual search for a sequence of numbers in a randomized, chessboard-like configuration. We found that participants were slower to complete the task when threatening pictures appeared near the primary search stimulus, but they were quite good at ignoring pictures with other emotional valences. This suggests that threatening stimuli hold greater prominence, and are more privileged in cognitive processing than stimuli that evoke other emotions.

Featured Image

Why is it important?

Conscious control of our cognitive – and in particular, attentional – processing is one of the most important functions of our visual system. We are using a new approach in this study that addresses key shortcomings of prior literature that has investigated threat perception. A fuller account of visual processing should include a better understanding of how we perceive cues to potential threats in our environment, and how this differs from the processing of other emotion-invoking stimuli. Moreover, the degree to which we are capable of consciously controlling what we attend to – especially when that stimulus may be perceived as threatening – is important for understanding the development and maintenance of various fears and phobias. Our results could have important implications in applied scenarios such as the treatment of emotion-related mental health issues (e.g., anxiety), addictions, and neurological disorders (e.g., Autism Spectrum Disorder).


Emotions are a vital and unmissable part of our everyday lives; they have an undeniably strong influence on perception, cognition, and decision-making processes. Understanding their role in cognition and whether we are capable of separating emotions from more rational processes is important in many aspects. I had a great time working with my students and colleague Michael Hout on this piece. This work is one of the many we have done in the past few years of this international collaboration. We hope this leads to many more studies on the topic, and inspires others to tackle similar questions in emotion and visual processing.

Andras Zsido
Pecsi Tudomanyegyetem

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Task-irrelevant threatening information is harder to ignore than other valences., Emotion, November 2022, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/emo0001189.
You can read the full text:




The following have contributed to this page