Increasing Cognitive Load Reduces Interference from Masked Appetitive and Aversive but Not Neutral Stimuli
Interactions between cognition and emotion are important for survival, often occurring in the absence of awareness. These interactions have been proposed to involve competition between cognition and emotion for attentional resources. Emotional stimuli have been reported to impair performance on cognitive tasks of low, but not high, load if stimuli are consciously perceived. This study explored whether this load-dependent interference effect occurred in response to subliminal emotional stimuli.
... asked emotional (appetitive and aversive), but not neutral, stimuli interfered with performance accuracy but not response time on a cognitive task (n-back) at low (1-back), but not high (2-back) load. These results show that a load-dependent interference effect applies to masked emotional stimuli and that the effect generalises across stimulus categories with high motivational value. This supports models of selective attention that propose that cognition and emotion compete for attentional resources. More specifically, interference from masked emotional stimuli at low load suggests that attention is biased towards salient stimuli, while dissipation of interference under high load involves top-down regulation of attention. Our data also indicate that top-down goal-directed regulation of attention occurs in the absence of awareness and does not require metacognitive monitoring or evaluation of bias over behaviour, i.e., some degree of self-regulation occurs at a non-conscious level.