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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Effects of attention manipulations on motivated attention to feared and nonfeared negative distracters in spider fear

Joakim Norberg12 and Stefan Wiens1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychology, Stockholm University, Stockholm S-106 91, Sweden

2 Stockholm Brain Institute, Karolinska Institutet, Retzius väg 8, Stockholm S-171 76, Sweden

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BMC Neuroscience 2013, 14:139  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-14-139

Published: 9 November 2013



When people view emotional and neutral pictures, the emotional pictures capture more attention than do neutral pictures. In support, studies with event-related potentials have shown that the early posterior negativity (EPN) and the late positive potential (LPP) to emotional versus neutral pictures are enhanced when pictures are attended. However, this motivated attention decreases when voluntary attention is directed away from the pictures. Most previous studies included only generally emotional pictures of either negative or positive valence. Because people with spider fear report intense fear of spiders, we examined whether directing attention away from emotional pictures at fixation decreases motivated attention less strongly for spiders than for generally negative distracters.


We recorded event-related potentials from 128 channels to study whether manipulations of attention (i.e., spatial attention and perceptual load) decrease the EPN and the LPP to emotional distracters less strongly for spiders than for fear-irrelevant negative pictures in people with spider fear. Results confirmed that the EPN and the LPP to spiders (vs. neutral pictures) were particularly enhanced in participants with spider fear compared to participants without spider fear. When attention was directed away from the pictures, the EPN and the LPP to spiders (vs. neutral pictures) decreased similarly in fearful and nonfearful participants. Further, in fearful participants, the decrease in the EPN and the LPP was similar for spiders and for fear-irrelevant negative pictures.


Our findings suggest that for people with spider fear, directing attention away from emotional pictures at fixation decreases motivated attention to these distracters similarly for spiders as for fear-irrelevant negative pictures. These findings imply that attention to spiders in spider fear does not exceed the level of attention expected from the spider pictures’ high arousal and negative valence (i.e., their intrinsic motivated attention).