In my studies, I found that processing of positive and negative emotions interact with attention differently. According to a new study done by us, it is easier to ignore negative images—angry or sad faces, mutilated bodies or faces associated with punishment—than positive ones like happy faces, erotic pictures or faces associated with reward, when focusing on other things.
Fifty-one volunteers took part in our study that involved attention tasks like searching for ‘target’ items. They were found to be highly distracted by emotional images, whether positive or negative, when the search was easy. However when the search was harder and demanded more focus, people were able to completely ignore the negative images, while the positive images continued to be highly distracting. The study has been published in Emotion.
We found that if someone is busy, the best way to capture his or her attention is with something related to pleasure. Adverts from charity organisations often use images of suffering to encourage donations. This study suggests that these images could be overlooked by people who are engaged in other activities. To capture their attention from other activities, charities could consider using more positive images such as happy people whose lives have been improved by donations.
The results are also surprising from an evolutionary perspective, as one would expect the brain to pay most attention to negative images because they can indicate potential threats. These findings may reflect the changing priorities of modern western society, where we face relatively few immediate threats to our lives. The power of positive images and those associated with winning may be a symptom of our competitive, hedonistic society.
This effect was paralleled by another study that showed that when our attention style is broad, we tend to remember or recognise more positive information, and when it is narrow then we tend to remember or recognise more negative information.
I also found that the time course of processing of positive and negative information is different. For example, using electroencephalography, I found that distractors with positive information start interfering with primary task in early stage of the processing while negative information starts interfering in the later stage of processing.
Gupta is a cognitive neuroscientist at the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences at the University of Geneva.