We investigated whether stimuli merely instructed to be fear-relevant can bias visual attention, even when the fear relation was never experienced before. Participants performed a dot-probe task with pictures of naturally fear-relevant (snake or spider) or -irrelevant (bird or butterfly) stimuli. Instructions indicated that two pictures (one naturally fear-relevant and one fear-irrelevant) could be followed by an electrical stimulation (i.e., instructed fear). In reality, no stimulation was administered. During the task, two pictures were presented on each side of the screen, after which participants had to determine as fast as possible on which side a black dot appeared. After a first phase, fear was reinstated by instructing participants that the device was not connected but now was (reinstatement phase). Participants were faster when the dot appeared on a location where an instructed fear picture was presented. This effect seemed independent of whether picture content was naturally fear-relevant, but was only found in the first half of each phase, suggesting rapid extinction due to the absence of stimulation, and rapid re-evaluation after reinstatement. A second experiment similarly showed that instructed fear biases attention, even when participants were explicitly instructed that no stimulation would be given during the dot-probe task. Together, these findings demonstrate that attention can be biased towards instructed fear stimuli, even when these fear relations were never experienced. Future studies should test whether this is specific to fear, or can be observed for all instructions that change the relevance of a given stimulus.

Additional Metadata
Keywords Attention, Dot-probe, Fear conditioning, Instructed fear, Learning via instructions
Persistent URL dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2017.08.010, hdl.handle.net/1765/101846
Journal Acta Psychologica
Deltomme, B. (Berre), Mertens, G. (Gaetan), Tibboel, H. (Helen), & Braem, S. (Senne). (2017). Instructed fear stimuli bias visual attention. Acta Psychologica. doi:10.1016/j.actpsy.2017.08.010