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The effects of anxiety on temporal attention for emotive and neutral faces in childrenOBJECTIVES: Cognitive theories suggest that the aetiology and maintenance of anxiety are associated with biases of attention for threatening information. However, findings relating to studies in child populations are inconsistent and the majority of such research has focused on spatial attentional biases. Consequently, the aim here was to investigate the effects of anxiety on temporal biases of attention for emotive stimuli in children. METHODS: A total of 53 children, aged eight to eleven, were preselected for levels of trait anxiety to participate in an attentional blink task. On each trial, two target stimuli (i.e., a neutral face and either a happy or angry face) appeared in a stream of consecutively presented distracters (i.e., scrambled face stimuli). Participants were required to report which face(s) they had seen. RESULTS: A mixed analysis of variance revealed a significant interaction between anxiety and trial type, such that high trait anxiety was associated with facilitated engagement towards angry, compared with happy and neutral, faces. In addition, high trait, relative to low trait, anxious participants displayed facilitated engagement towards neutral faces. CONCLUSIONS: Findings offer support for cognitive theories, which purport that attentional bias for threat is an innate phenomenon and moderated according to anxiety level. The neutral face finding may further suggest that maladaptive assumptions/beliefs, particularly concerning ambiguous situations, play a role in the aetiology and/or maintenance of anxiety disorders. This research offers important clinical implications in relation to attention retraining that has been used to successfully attenuate such biases in anxious adults.
Emotion based attentional priority for storage in visual short-term memoryA plethora of research demonstrates that the processing of emotional faces is prioritised over non-emotive stimuli when cognitive resources are limited (this is known as ‘emotional superiority’). However, there is debate as to whether competition for processing resources results in emotional superiority per se, or more specifically, threat superiority. Therefore, to investigate prioritisation of emotional stimuli for storage in visual short-term memory (VSTM), we devised an original VSTM report procedure using schematic (angry, happy, neutral) faces in which processing competition was manipulated. In Experiment 1, display exposure time was manipulated to create competition between stimuli. Participants (n = 20) had to recall a probed stimulus from a set size of four under high (150 ms array exposure duration) and low (400 ms array exposure duration) perceptual processing competition. For the high competition condition (i.e. 150 ms exposure), results revealed an emotional superiority effect per se. In Experiment 2 (n = 20), we increased competition by manipulating set size (three versus five stimuli), whilst maintaining a constrained array exposure duration of 150 ms. Here, for the five-stimulus set size (i.e. maximal competition) only threat superiority emerged. These findings demonstrate attentional prioritisation for storage in VSTM for emotional faces. We argue that task demands modulated the availability of processing resources and consequently the relative magnitude of the emotional/threat superiority effect, with only threatening stimuli prioritised for storage in VSTM under more demanding processing conditions. Our results are discussed in light of models and theories of visual selection, and not only combine the two strands of research (i.e. visual selection and emotion), but highlight a critical factor in the processing of emotional stimuli is availability of processing resources, which is further constrained by task demands.