Fear-related pictures deteriorate the performance of university students with high fear of snakes or spiders Academic Article uri icon


  • Despite research regarding emotional processing, it is still unclear whether fear-evoking stimuli are processed when they are irrelevant and when attention is oriented elsewhere. In this study, 63 healthy university students with high fear from snakes or spiders participated in two different experiments. In an emotional modification of the spatial cueing task, 31 subjects (5 males) were asked to detect a target letter while ignoring a neutral or fear-related distracting picture. The distribution of attention was independently manipulated by a spatial cue that preceded the appearance of the picture and the target letter. In an emotional modification of the cognitive load paradigm, 32 subjects (4 males) were asked to discriminate between two target letters, while ignoring a central neutral or fear-related picture, and additional 1, 3, or 5 distracting letters that created a varied attentional load. Fear-related pictures interfered with the performance of highly fearful participants, even when the pictures were presented outside the focus of attention and when the task taxed attentional resources. We suggest that highly fearful individuals process fear-related information automatically, either inattentively or with prioritized attention capture over competing items, leading to deteriorated cognitive performance. Different results were shown in healthy individuals while processing negative--but not phobic--pictures, suggesting that emotional processing depends on the fear value of the stimulus for a specific observer.

publication date

  • January 1, 2011