People who are in love have better attention for beloved-related information, but report having trouble focusing on other tasks, such as (home)work. So, romantic love can both improve and hurt cognition. Emotional information is preferentially processed, which improves task performance when the information is task-relevant, but hurts task performance when it is task-irrelevant. Because beloved-related information is highly emotional, the effects of romantic love on cognition may resemble these effects of emotion on cognition. We examined whether beloved-related information is preferentially processed even when it is task-irrelevant and whether this hurts task performance. In two event-related potential studies, participants who had recently fallen in love performed a visuospatial short-term memory task. Task-irrelevant beloved, friend, and stranger faces were presented during maintenance (Study 1), or encoding (Study 2). The Early Posterior Negativity (EPN) reflecting early automatic attentional capturing and the Late Positive Potential (LPP) reflecting sustained motivated attention were largest for beloved pictures. Thus, beloved pictures are preferentially processed even when they are task-irrelevant. Task performance and reaction times did not differ between beloved, friend, and stranger conditions. Nevertheless, self-reported obsessive thinking about the beloved tended to correlate negatively with task performance, and positively with reaction times, across conditions. So, although task-irrelevant beloved-related information does not impact task performance, more obsessive thinking about the beloved might relate to poorer and slower overall task performance. More research is needed to clarify why people experience trouble focusing on beloved-unrelated tasks and how this negative effect of love on cognition could be reduced.

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Department of Psychology

Langeslag, S., & van Strien, J. (2017). Preferential processing of task-irrelevant beloved-related information and task performance: Two event-related potential studies. Neuropsychologia. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2017.09.015