Distracted by danger: Temporal and spatial dynamics of visual selection in the presence of threat

Manon Mulckhuyse*, Edwin S. Dalmaijer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)


Threatening stimuli are known to influence attentional and visual processes in order to prioritize selection. For example, previous research showed faster detection of threatening relative to nonthreatening stimuli. This has led to the proposal that threatening stimuli are prioritized automatically via a rapid subcortical route. However, in most studies, the threatening stimulus is always to some extent task relevant. Therefore, it is still unclear if threatening stimuli are automatically prioritized by the visual system. We used the additional singleton paradigm with task-irrelevant fear-conditioned distractors (CS+ and CS-) and indexed the time course of eye movement behavior. The results demonstrate automatic prioritization of threat. First, mean latency of saccades directed to the neutral target was increased in the presence of a threatening (CS+) relative to a nonthreatening distractor (CS-), indicating exogenous attentional capture and delayed disengagement of covert attention. Second, more error saccades were directed to the threatening than to the nonthreatening distractor, indicating a modulation of automatically driven saccades. Nevertheless, cumulative distributions of the saccade latencies showed no modulation of threat for the fastest goal-driven saccades, and threat did not affect the latency of the error saccades to the distractors. Together these results suggest that threatening stimuli are automatically prioritized in attentional and visual selection but not via faster processing. Rather, we suggest that prioritization results from an enhanced representation of the threatening stimulus in the oculomotor system, which drives attentional and visual selection. The current findings are interpreted in terms of a neurobiological model of saccade programming.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)315-324
Number of pages10
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was funded by a VENI grant from NWO (Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research) to M. M. E. S. D. was supported through a European Commission Marie Curie ITN grant (606901).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015, Psychonomic Society, Inc.


  • Attention
  • Emotion
  • Eye movement
  • Fear conditioning
  • Oculomotor system


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