Searching for threat

Authors: Tipples, Jason1; Young, Andrew W.1; Quinlan, Philip1; Broks, Paul2; Ellis, Andrew W.1

Source: The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology A, 1 August 2002, vol. 55, no. 3, pp. 1007-1026(20)


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In a series of experiments, a visual search task was used to test the idea that biologically relevant threatening stimuli might be recognized very quickly or capture visuo-spatial attention. In Experiment 1, there was evidence for both faster detection and faster search rates for threatening animals than for plants. However, examination of the basis of this effect in Experiment 2 showed that it was not due to threat per se, as detection and search rate advantages were found for pleasant rather than threatening animals compared to plants. In Experiment 3, participants searched for the plants and pleasant and threatening animals used in Experiments 1 and 2, among a fixed heterogeneous selection of non-target items. There was no search rate or detection advantage for threatening animals compared to pleasant animals or plants. The same targets and non-targets as those used in Experiment 3 were also used in Experiment 4. In Experiment 4, participants searched for targets that were presented either close to or distant from an initial fixation point. There was no evidence for a "threat" detection advantage either close to or distant from the cross. Finally, an experiment was conducted in which target categories (fruit, flowers, and animals) were not pre-specified prior to each trial block. There were no differences in reaction times to detect pleasant animals, threatening animals, or fruit. We conclude that the visual search paradigm does not readily reveal any biases that might exist for threatening stimuli in the general population.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: University of York, York, UK 2: University of Plymouth, Plymouth, UK

Publication date: August 1, 2002

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