Expectancy influences on attention to threat are only weak and transient: Behavioral and physiological evidence

Tatjana Aue, Léa A.S. Chauvigné, Mirko Bristle, Hadas Okon-Singer, Raphaël Guex

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Can prior expectancies shape attention to threat? To answer this question, we manipulated the expectancies of spider phobics and nonfearful controls regarding the appearance of spider and bird targets in a visual search task. We observed robust evidence for expectancy influences on attention to birds, reflected in error rates, reaction times, pupil diameter, and heart rate (HR). We found no solid effect, however, of the same expectancies on attention to spiders; only HR revealed a weak and transient impact of prior expectancies on the orientation of attention to threat. Moreover, these asymmetric effects for spiders versus birds were observed in both phobics and controls. Our results are thus consistent with the notion of a threat detection mechanism that is only partially permeable to current expectancies, thereby increasing chances of survival in situations that are mistakenly perceived as safe.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)173-186
Number of pages14
JournalBiological Psychology
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by grant PZ001P1_121590 of the Swiss National Science Foundation to Tatjana Aue .

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 Elsevier B.V.


  • Attention bias
  • Biological preparedness
  • Combined cognitive biases hypothesis
  • Encounter expectancy bias
  • Fear module
  • Heart rate
  • Pupil diameter
  • Respiration rate
  • Spider phobia
  • Visual search

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience (all)
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology


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