Spider vs. guns: expectancy and attention biases to phylogenetic threat do not extend to ontogenetic threat

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Introduction: Attention bias plays an important role in specific fears and phobias. Previous studies revealed that a-priori expectancies affect attention toward neutral stimuli but not threatening stimuli. The aim of the current study was to test whether this selective influence of expectancies on attention is specific to phylogenetic threat (i.e., spiders) or whether it can be generalized to ontogenetic threat (i.e., guns). Correspondingly, we directly compared expectancy effects on attentional allocation to phylogenetically vs. ontogenetically threatening stimuli. Method: Expectancies were manipulated by presenting a cue indicating the likelihood of the appearance of a deviant picture in a visual search array. The array included eight distractors and one neutral (phone/bird) or threatening (gun/spider) deviant picture. In a comprehensive design, we examined the effects of stimulus type (phylogenetic/ontogenetic) and visual background (white and sterile/complex and ecological). Individual differences such as intolerance of uncertainty and spider fear were also measured. Results: Results showed that attention bias toward spiders does not extend to threatening ontogenetic stimuli (i.e., guns). Our previous findings on attention bias toward spiders were replicated and a small to medium positive correlation was found between reaction time to bird targets and pre-existing fear of spider levels. Cues were used to detect threatening as well as neutral targets on both background types, except for spider targets on a complex background, replicating previous results. A small to medium positive correlation was also found between fear of spiders and intolerance of uncertainty. Discussion: Together, these results suggest that expectancy and attentional processes may differ between ontogenetic and phylogenetic threat. Importantly, the effects of expectancy on attentional allocation depend on an interaction between the type of threat (ontogenetic/phylogenetic), visual factors, and individual differences.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1232985
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
StatePublished - 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2023 Abado, Aue and Okon-Singer.


  • attention bias
  • expectancy bias
  • ontogenetic threat
  • phylogenetic threat
  • specific fear

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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