Automatic and Controlled Processes Regulating Attentional Distraction by Emotional Stimuli
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Affective stimuli have the ability to capture attention and evoke physiological responses. This ability is most notable with respect to negative, highly arousing stimuli. Studies have postulated that these strong responses are due to innate evolutionary mechanisms warning individuals about dangers in their environment. However, these processes (i.e. emotional regulation and attentional capture) are also important to a number of normal daily human functions. Dysfunctions in these highly interconnected abilities are known to be related to many psychological disorders (e.g. affective and anxiety disorders). This study examined how emotional reactivity interferes with attention during an operant response task, using skin conductance responses (SCR) as an index of automatic emotional arousal and indices of controlled processes. Female participants (N = 31) completed a self-report measure of executive function and the Wisconsin Card Sort Task (WCST), as well as a target detection task with neutral and emotional distracters while skin conductance responses (SCRs) were recorded. Analyses of reaction times (RTs) revealed greater distraction (i.e., longer reaction times) to negative pictures relative to positive and neutral pictures, while SCR analyses showed greater SCR magnitudes to negative pictures relative to neutral pictures. Regression analysis indicated SCR magnitude was predictive of RTs for positive, neutral, and negative stimuli. In addition, RTs for negative stimuli were predicted by ability to control emotion and monitoring behaviors which were measured using a self-report measure of executive function. These results suggest that in general, distraction to emotional pictures (both positive and negative) is related to automatic, arousal-mediated processes as measured by SCRs. However, distraction by negative pictures is mediated by both automatic emotional processes (SCRs) and controlled cognitive processes (executive function subscales).