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Changing the focus of attention: The interacting effect of valence and arousal

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We examined how valence and arousal of an image influence visual attention. “Spotlight of attention” theory suggests that positive affect broadens, and negative affect narrows, one's aperture of attention, whereas the arousal theory literature suggests that arousal level is what modulates attentional focus, with highly arousing affect capturing attention, regardless of valence. In two experiments, a digit parity task was used to index the influence of valence, and arousal, on visual attention. Positive or negative images were displayed centrally on each trial, with single digits presented more peripherally (Experiment 1) or more centrally (Experiment 2) to the image. In both Experiments participants were slower, and less accurate at making parity decisions (e.g., both digits odd or both even) when the image was negative relative to positive, and of high arousal. For low arousal images, positive, relative to negative, valence images led to greater impairment of the digit parity task. Findings suggest that arousal level of images modulates the influence of valence on distribution of visual attention. Highly negative emotional images may command or capture attention, but there are other factors that can lead to attention capture, even in low arousing positive stimuli.
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Keywords: Affect; Arousal; Attention; Emotion; Valence

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Psychology,University of Waterloo, WaterlooOntario, Canada

Publication date: 2011-10-01

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