Counterintuitive effects of negative social feedback on attention
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Which stimuli we pay attention to is strongly influenced by learning. Stimuli previously associated with reward outcomes, such as money and food, and stimuli previously associated with aversive outcomes, such as monetary loss and electric shock, automatically capture attention. Social reward (happy expressions) can bias attention towards associated stimuli, but the role of negative social feedback in biasing attentional selection remains unexplored. On the one hand, negative social feedback often serves to discourage particular behaviours. If attentional selection can be curbed much like any other behavioural preference, we might expect stimuli associated with negative social feedback to be more readily ignored. On the other hand, if negative social feedback influences attention in the same way that other aversive outcomes do, such feedback might ironically bias attention towards the stimuli it is intended to discourage selection of. In the present study, participants first completed a training phase in which colour targets were associated with negative social feedback. Then, in a subsequent test phase, these same colour stimuli served as task-irrelevant distractors during a visual search task. The results strongly support the latter interpretation in that stimuli previously associated with negative social feedback impaired search performance.
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