The impact of trait anxiety and perceptual load on selective attention was examined in a fear conditioning paradigm. A fear-conditioned angry face (CS+), an unconditioned angry face (CS-), or an unconditioned face with a neutral or happy expression were used in distractor interference and attentional probe tasks. In Experiments 1 and 2, participants classified centrally presented letters under two conditions of perceptual load. When perceptual load was high, distractors had no effect on selective attention, even with aversive conditioning. However, when perceptual load was low, strong response interference effects for CS+ face distractors were found for low trait-anxious participants. Across both experiments, this enhanced distractor interference reversed to strong facilitation effects for those reporting high trait anxiety. Thus, high trait-anxious participants were faster, rather than slower, when ignoring CS+ distractors. Using an attentional probe task in Experiment 3, it was found that fear conditioning resulted in strong attentional avoidance in a high trait-anxious group, which contrasted with enhanced vigilance in a low trait-anxious group. These results demonstrate that the impact of fear conditioning on attention is modulated by individual variation in trait anxiety when perceptual load is low. Fear conditioning elicits an avoidance of threat-relevant stimuli in high trait-anxious participants.
Fox, E., Yates, A., & Ashwin, C. (2011). Trait anxiety and perceptual load as determinants of emotion processing in a fear conditioning paradigm. Emotion, 12(2), 236-249. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025321