Distinguishing between automaticity and attention in the processing of emotionally significant stimuli

Hadas Okon-Singer, Joseph Tzelgov, Avishai Henik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


There is contradicting evidence as to whether irrelevant but significant emotional stimuli can be processed outside the focus of attention. In the current study, participants were asked to ignore emotional and neutral pictures while performing a competing task. In Experiment 1, orienting of attention to distracting pictures was manipulated via a peripheral cue. In Experiment 2, attentional load was varied, either leaving spare attention to process the distracting pictures or, alternatively, depleting attentional resources. Although all pictures were task irrelevant, negative pictures were found to interfere more with performance in comparison to neutral pictures. This finding suggests that processing of negative stimuli is automatic in the sense that it does not require execution of conscious monitoring. However, interference occurred only when sufficient attention was available for picture processing. Hence, processing of negative pictures was dependent on sufficient attentional resources. This suggests that processing of emotionally significant stimuli is automatic yet requires attention.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)147-157
Number of pages11
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Attentional resources
  • Automaticity
  • Emotional pictures
  • Spatial attention

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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