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Anxiety, conscious awareness and change


Article in Consciousness and Cognition March 2012

DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2011.09.009 Source: PubMed


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2 authors:

Sally M Gregory Anthony Lambert

University of Auckland University of Auckland


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Consciousness and Cognition xxx (2011) xxxxxx

Contents lists available at SciVerse ScienceDirect

Consciousness and Cognition

journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/concog

Anxiety, conscious awareness and change detection

Sally M. Gregory , Anthony Lambert
Research Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Psychology, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Attentional scanning was studied in anxious and non-anxious participants, using a modi-
Received 21 June 2010 ed change detection paradigm. Participants detected changes in pairs of emotional scenes
Available online xxxx separated by two task irrelevant slides, which contained an emotionally valenced scene
(the distractor scene) and a visual mask. In agreement with attentional control theory,
Keywords: change detection latencies were slower overall for anxious participants. Change detection
Change detection in anxious, but not non-anxious, participants was inuenced by the emotional valence and
exposure duration of distractor scenes. When negative distractor scenes were presented at
subliminal exposure durations, anxious participants detected changes more rapidly than
IAPS when supraliminal negative scenes or subliminal positive scenes were presented. We pro-
pose that for anxious participants, subliminal presentation of emotionally negative distrac-
tor scenes stimulated attention into a dynamic state in the absence of attentional
engagement. Presentation of the same scenes at longer exposure times was accompanied
by conscious awareness, attentional engagement, and slower change detection.
2011 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction

1.1. Outline

It is well documented that the attentional behaviour of highly anxious individuals is unusually sensitive to emotionally
negative or threatening information in the visual environment. Findings from several paradigms converge on the conclusion
that anxious individuals show an attentional bias for emotionally negative, potentially threatening information, and are
more distracted when such information is present in the visual environment (Bar-Haim, Lamy, Pergamin, Bakermans-Kran-
enburg, & van Ijzendoorn, 2007; Cisler, Bacon, & Williams, 2009; Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos, & Calvo, 2007). However, one
issue that remains unresolved is how these well documented biases might inuence the way in which anxious individuals
scan the visual environment (Cisler et al., 2009), and even whether such biases have any consequences at all for visual scan-
ning in anxiety (Freeman, Garety, & Phillips, 2000). In the current study we addressed this issue by making use of a widely
used technique for studying visual scanning, the change detection paradigm. Although this paradigm has been applied pro-
ductively to a variety of theoretical issues in studies of attention and perception (Rensink, 2002; Simons & Rensink, 2005)
to our knowledge it has not been recruited in previous research to investigate attentional scanning in anxiety. Here we made
use of a change detection paradigm to study the efciency of attentional scanning in anxious and non-anxious individuals in
different task contexts. More specically, we investigated the efciency with which anxious and non-anxious participants
detected changes in pairs of scenes when these were accompanied by task irrelevant, emotionally valenced information.
By using a pattern masking procedure together with a variable exposure time we were able to manipulate whether this emo-
tionally valenced, but task irrelevant information was available or unavailable to conscious awareness.

Corresponding author. Address: P.O. Box 705, Townsville, QLD 4810, Australia.
E-mail address: sally.m.gregory@gmail.com (S.M. Gregory).

1053-8100/$ - see front matter 2011 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Please cite this article in press as: Gregory, S. M., & Lambert, A. Anxiety, conscious awareness and change detection. Consciousness and Cog-
nition (2011), doi:10.1016/j.concog.2011.09.009
2 S.M. Gregory, A. Lambert / Consciousness and Cognition xxx (2011) xxxxxx

1.2. Attentional scanning

Bar-Haim et al. (2007) reported a meta-analysis of 172 studies which examined attentional behaviour in anxious and
non-anxious individuals. They noted that three experimental paradigms (emotional Stroop task, dot-probe task, and emo-
tional spatial cueing task) account for the bulk of published evidence on this issue. Evidence from all three paradigms sup-
ports the conclusion that in anxious individuals, visual attention shows a bias towards threat-related information, while
non-anxious individuals display no such bias. In addition, these authors noted that meta-analysis of ndings from a para-
digm that assesses spatial attention, the dot probe task, indicated that subliminal presentation of emotional stimuli was
associated with attentional effects that were almost twice as large as those elicited by supraliminal exposures.
In addition to the three paradigms reviewed by Bar-Haim et al. (2007) a fourth technique, the visual search task, has also
been used in studies of attention and anxiety. In a typical visual search task participants attempt to detect a target item in a
display containing several objects, and the time taken to either detect the target, or verify its absence is measured. Evidence
from visual search is directly relevant to the issue addressed in the current study, because like the change detection task, it
provides an assessment of attentional scanning. In a study by Byrne and Eysenck (1995) participants searched through arrays
of twelve photographed faces. When participants were searching for an angry face among distractors bearing a neutral
expression, anxious individuals detected the target more rapidly than the non-anxious control group. In contrast, when par-
ticipants searched for a happy face among distractors bearing angry expressions, anxious individuals detected the target
more slowly than the control group. These ndings were interpreted as indicating that anxious individuals display an atten-
tional bias towards potentially threatening stimuli, such as angry faces, and that this bias is manifest as improved perfor-
mance when an angry face is the target, but impaired performance when angry faces serve as distractors. Thus
attentional scanning in anxiety can be facilitated when searching for a threat-related target, but the same bias increases sus-
ceptibility to distraction when searching for a non-threat target among threatening distractors. Eysenck et al. (2007) suggest
that both these effects derive from increased reliance on stimulus driven, bottom-up attentional control, at the expense of
goal driven top-down attentional control (Corbetta & Shulman, 2002). According to this view, threat-related information
captures attention, in a bottom-up fashion, to a stronger degree in anxious compared to non-anxious individuals. This would
thus lead to improved search for threat-related targets, because the targets of goal-directed and stimulus driven attention
coincide. However, performance would be worse in the presence of threat-related distractors as stimulus driven attentional
capture distracts attention away from the target, and impairs goal driven search. Cisler et al. (2009) review the outcome of
visual search studies of attention in anxiety, and conclude that, despite some inconsistencies, the pattern of results reported
by Byrne and Eysenck (1995) has been replicated in more recent research.
In contrast to the ndings of Byrne and Eysenck (1995), recent research reported by Phelps, Ling, and Carrasco (2006) and
Becker (2009) suggests that the presence of emotionally threatening information in the environment can improve visual pro-
cessing and facilitate visual search. In the former study (Phelps et al., 2006), observers discriminated the orientation of sinu-
soidal gratings which were preceded by a briey presented (75 ms) face bearing either a neutral or a fearful expression.
Contrast sensitivity was improved when gratings were preceded by fearful faces, when compared with the neutral face con-
dition. In the study of Becker (2009) observers performed a visual search task, in which both the target (a house) and dis-
tractor objects were emotionally non-threatening. Search arrays were preceded by a face bearing a fearful, neutral or
happy expression. Search times were reliably faster when preceded by a fearful face. Although this evidence suggests that
the presence of emotionally threatening information can facilitate perceptual processing and the efciency of visual search,
anxiety levels were not assessed in either study (Becker, 2009; Phelps et al., 2006). Thus, the question of how these effects
might be moderated, or perhaps even reversed as a function of participant anxiety remains unknown.
However, the visual search task is not the only technique available to experimental psychologists for studying attentional
behaviour. As noted earlier, the change detection task has been widely used in studies of perception and attention (Rensink,
2002), but has yet to be applied to the question of how attentional behaviour is affected by anxiety. The current study sought
to remedy this by using a well documented form of the change detection paradigm, the icker task (Rensink, ORegan, & Clark,
1997) to study attentional scanning in anxiety. In the icker task participants are presented with two versions of a visual scene,
which are shown successively, separated by an interposed slide, which often comprises a uniform grey or white screen. The two
versions of the scene, together with intervening slides are presented, in cyclical fashion, until observers detect a difference be-
tween them. A well known nding from studies using this task is that observers often fail to detect surprisingly large differ-
ences between the two scenes and display change blindness (Simons & Ambinder, 2005). If the intervening blank slides are
removed from the presentation cycle, change detection becomes trivially easy. In this situation, a difference between the
two scenes produces a local visual transient when they alternate, and this captures attention in a bottom-up fashion, leading
to rapid detection of the change. In contrast, when the scenes alternate with blank or mud-splash slides, massive transients
occur across the entire scene so, attention is not drawn selectively to the location of the change. A central nding from research
using this and similar techniques has been that there is a tight link between change detection and attention: observers need to
pay attention to the appropriate location for changes to be detected (Rensink, ORegan, & Clark, 1997; Simons & Rensink, 2005).
In a sense change detection represents a special case of the visual search task, where the target a change remains undened
with respect to any specic visual (e.g. size, shape, colour) or categorical (e.g. facial expression) attribute.
In the study reported here we adapted the icker task (Rensink, ORegan, & Clark, 1997), to investigate how attentional
scanning might be affected by the presence of emotionally valenced information. The design of our modied task is illus-
trated in Fig. 1 below. As this gure shows, rather than interposing a single blank screen in between the original and changed

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Fig. 1. The sequence of display events on a typical trial of the experiment.

scene, two further screens were interposed. The rst of these contained an additional scene that we refer to below as the
distractor scene. Participants were presented with distractor scenes that were either emotionally negative in nature (e.g.
war scene, trafc accident, mutilation), or emotionally positive (e.g. romantic scene, attractive natural scene, smiling baby;
see Appendix A for a full list). The second screen contained a pattern mask. In the short duration subliminal condition, the
distractor screen was presented for 33 ms, and the mask was presented for 197 ms, while in the long duration supraliminal
condition the distractor scene was presented for 150 ms and the mask was presented for 80 ms. The aim of this was to pres-
ent the distractor scenes at durations whereby the content of the scene was either available to conscious awareness (long
duration), or unavailable to conscious awareness (short duration). Previous work has shown that when the delay between
onset of a visual stimulus and onset of a pattern mask (stimulus onset asynchrony SOA) is very brief, access of the rst
stimulus to conscious awareness is limited or absent. In their wide ranging review of this literature, Breitmeyer and Ogmen
(2006) conclude that an SOA of between 30 ms and 100 ms produces a total or nearly total suppression of the perception of
the targets contrast, colour, and contour (Breitmeyer & Ogmen, 2006, p. 38). By using an SOA of 33 ms in the short duration
subliminal condition we aimed to ensure that the content of the vast majority of distractor scenes was unavailable to con-
scious awareness. Conversely, in the long duration condition (SOA 150 ms) the content of distractor scenes was available to
conscious awareness. As a check on the effectiveness of this manipulation, participants reported verbally their perception of
the distractor scene on each trial (see Section 2.5). An additional aim of the study was to discover whether effects of distrac-
tor scene valence and exposure time on change detection latency would be modulated by the emotional context in which the
distractor scenes were presented. Thus, the emotional valence of the scenes that changed were also either negative or po-
sitive (see Appendix B for full list). We refer to these scenes below as the change scenes.

1.3. Attentional control theory

According to attentional control theory (Derakshan & Eysenck, 2009; Eysenck et al., 2007) attention in anxiety is charac-
terised by an altered balance of attentional control, in which the allocation of attention tends to be dominated by bottom-up,
stimulus driven attention, at the expense of top-down, goal directed attention. A central prediction of this theory is that in
anxiety the ability to control goal-directed movements of attention will be compromised in situations where there is scope
for attention to be captured by task irrelevant stimuli especially when the task irrelevant stimuli are threat-related or per-
ceptually salient. In such situations anxious individuals will show greater distractibility than non-anxious controls. Atten-
tional control theory contends that the latter group maintain top-down control over attention more effectively, enabling
them to avoid the distracting effects of task irrelevant stimuli. Thus, attentional control theory predicts that overall change
detection latencies will be slower in anxious compared to non-anxious participants. This is because during change detection
participants must perform a goal-directed search of a visually complex scene, directing attention in a systematic way to mul-
tiple candidate locations. For this to be effective, attention must not be monopolised by perceptually salient features or by
emotionally salient objects in the scene, but needs to be directed to a variety of less salient features and relatively marginal
scene objects. The changes that we implemented in the change scenes generally involved alterations that were low in per-
ceptual salience, and involved objects or features that were of marginal rather than central interest in the scene (Rensink,
ORegan, & Clark, 1997). According to attentional control theory, anxious participants will perform this task less efciently,

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nition (2011), doi:10.1016/j.concog.2011.09.009
4 S.M. Gregory, A. Lambert / Consciousness and Cognition xxx (2011) xxxxxx

because for these participants goal-directed scanning of attention will tend to be hijacked by bottom-up attentional cap-
ture, directing attention to visually salient features or objects with emotional signicance. Furthermore, the degree of
impairment in goal-directed attentional scanning experienced by anxious participants should be especially marked in emo-
tionally negative visual contexts. Thus, change detection in anxiety should be especially slow when participants scan scenes
that are emotionally negative and when an emotionally negative distractor scene is interposed between the two versions of
the scene. In both cases attentional control theory predicts that for anxious individuals, features of the emotionally negative
scenes will be more likely to capture attention and disrupt goal-directed scanning. Moreover, the meta-analysis of Bar-Haim
et al. (2007), indicating increased attentional effects with subliminally presented emotional stimuli, leads to the further pre-
diction that the disruptive effect of interposed distractor scenes should be stronger at brief subliminal exposure times,
which prevent access of the scene to conscious awareness.
On the other hand, the recent work of Phelps et al. (2006) and Becker (2009) suggests that a very different pattern of re-
sults could be observed. This work, described above, showed that task irrelevant, emotionally negative information can facil-
itate perceptual processing. Although Beckers (2009) nding with visual search might be expected to generalise to the
change detection task employed here, as noted earlier, it is currently unknown whether this effect is moderated, or perhaps
even reversed as a function of participant anxiety.

2. Method

2.1. Ethics

This study was approved by the University of Auckland Human Participants Ethics Committee.

2.2. Participants

Forty participants were recruited from a student population at the University of Auckland and a working adult popula-
tion. Data from one participant was lost due to a computer error, leaving 39 participants. High anxiety participants were
those with STAI-T (Form Y-2) scores equal to or greater than 48. This score was chosen as a cut-off, as across the four demo-
graphics represented by our sample (i.e. female students, male students, female workers, and male workers), it is approxi-
mately one standard deviation above the highest mean score, of these groups (Spielberger, Gorsuch, Lushene, Vagg, & Jacobs,
1983). The high anxiety group comprised 13 participants who fullled this criterion (STAI-T scores ranged from 48 to 66;
l = 55.85, median = 53). The remaining 26 participants were classied as low anxiety (STAI-T scores ranged from 22 to
44; l = 36.15, median = 37). Although recent work has suggested that anxiety may be a heterogeneous disorder, comprising
distinct sub-types (e.g. generalised anxiety, social anxiety, panic disorder; Watson, 2005), in this investigation anxiety was
characterised broadly, in terms of STAI-T scores. Because this study is, to our knowledge, the rst to investigate possible ef-
fects of anxiety in a change detection paradigm, a broadly based characterisation of anxiety was appropriate.

2.3. Apparatus

The experiment was programmed using E-Prime Version 2.0 and was delivered to participants on a Dell PC. Screen size
was 14  11 in., with 1280  1024 pixel resolution.

2.4. Display and stimuli

The scenes presented to participants were adapted from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS) which com-
prises 814 photographic scenes, which have been rated for emotional valence (Lang, Bradley, & Cuthbert, 2001). The masking
stimulus was also from the IAPS (image 7182; see Fig. 1). The experiment proper was preceded by four practice trials to
familiarise participants with the procedure. Two positive change scenes were paired with a positive and a negative distractor
scene at the brief (33 ms) and long (150 ms) presentation durations, respectively. Two negative change scenes were also
paired with a positive and negative distractor scene at the long and brief presentation durations, respectively. All scenes
(both practice and experimental) were edited using the programs Corel Draw and Photoshop CS2. The distractor scenes that
were interposed between the two versions of the change scene were also from the IAPS, and were different from the change
scenes (see Appendix A for a full list of the distractor scenes and Appendix B for a full list of the change scenes, together with
their valence ratings). To avoid confounding effects of emotional valence with effects of scene content, the distractor scenes
were sorted into four categories: adults, children, animals, or miscellaneous/objects. The distractor scenes in both the pos-
itively valenced set and the negatively valenced set comprised six scenes containing adults, four scenes featuring children,
four with miscellaneous content or objects, and two scenes with animals.
Lang et al. (2001) provide mean valence ratings of each image as judged by introductory psychology students. A scale of
one to nine was used, with one indicating a very negative picture, and nine representing a very positive picture. Valence rat-
ings for the positive change and distractor scenes ranged between 7 and 9, while those for the negative change and distractor
scenes ranged from 1 to 3 (see Appendices A and B).

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2.5. Design

Three within participant factors with two levels each were manipulated. These were: change scene valence (positive or
negative), distractor scene valence (positive or negative) and distractor scene duration (short-subliminal or long-supralim-
inal). Thus there were eight experimental conditions. Each condition was repeated four times, leading to a total of 32 trials
for each participant, in a single block. The order in which the trials were presented was randomised for each participant.
There was one between participants factor, anxiety group (high or low; see Section 2.1).
Each version of the change scene was presented for 500 ms. As indicated earlier, a backward pattern masking procedure
was used to ensure that that the contents of the distractor scene were either available or unavailable to conscious awareness,
in the long and short duration conditions respectively. The combined duration of the distractor scene and mask was always
230 ms (see Fig. 1). In the short duration subliminal condition, the distractor scene was presented for 33 ms and the pattern
mask for 197 ms. In the long duration supraliminal condition, the distractor scene was presented for 150 ms and the pat-
tern mask for 80 ms.
To avoid any confounding effects that may have arisen due to an interaction between visual features of the change scene
and visual features of the distractor scene, and/or distractor scene duration, four versions of the experiment were constructed.
Each distractor scene was assigned to a particular positive change scene, at a duration of 33 ms in one version and a duration
of 150 ms in another. This same distractor scene was also paired with a particular negative change scene, again at a duration of
33 ms in one version, and 150 ms in another, leading to four versions in total. Distractor scenes were assigned to change
scenes randomly. This enabled us to minimise and counter-balance the inuence of effects attributable to low level visual fea-
tures of the distractor scenes, or emergent effects arising from interactions between these features and features of the change
scenes. Distribution of the four experimental versions was balanced across the high and low anxiety groups.

2.6. Procedure

Before commencing the experiment, participants anxiety levels were assessed with the STAI-T (Spielberger et al., 1983).
Participants were then given verbal instructions concerning the task. It was described to them as a virtual spot the differ-
ence task, and the sequence of Fig. 1 was described. They were instructed that as soon as they had detected the change, they
should press the spacebar, and then provide a verbal description of the change. Finally, they were informed that if they saw
an image that was not the changing scene or the mask (i.e. the icker scene), they should report this and describe what was
depicted in the scene. If they were able to give a description that included the main features and matched the gist of the
scene, then it was considered that they had consciously perceived the icker scene. If they could not report the scene at
all, or were unable to provide sufcient detail of the icker scene then they were assumed not to have consciously perceived
it. After these instructions were given, participants were allowed to clarify any uncertainty they had with regard to the task.
To familiarise them with the computer-based task of the experiment, participants rst performed the four practice trials
(see above) before beginning the main experimental session.
On each trial of the experiment, the sequence of slides illustrated in Fig. 1 continued to be presented, in cyclic fashion,
until participants responded by pressing the space-bar. If the participant had not detected a change after 3 min had elapsed,
the experimenter instructed the participant to press the space bar to stop the trial, and it was noted that the change had not
been detected. These are referred to below as change blindness (CB) trials.

3. Results

3.1. Removed trials

Trials where participants failed to make a correct change detection, were removed. In addition, trials where participants
were able to report the content of distractor scene in the short duration subliminal condition, and trials where participants
were unable to report the content of the distractor scene in the long duration supraliminal condition were removed. The
percentage of trials removed for each of these reasons is shown in Table 1.

Table 1
Percentage of trials removed due to change blindness, incorrect change detection, response errors and masking failure.

Reason for trial removal Percentage of trials removed

Change blindness 6.6
Incorrect change detection 0.2
Accidental press of spacebar 0.2
Distractor scene available to consciousness when predicted to be unavailable 3.2
Distractor scene unavailable to consciousness when predicted to be consciously available 1.9
Total 12.1

Note: Change blindness referred to instances where a change was not detected at any point of the trial. Incorrect change detection involved trials where a
change was identied, but was incorrect.

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Fig. 2. Mean change detection times of high and low anxiety participants, in the presence of emotionally negative and positive distractor scenes, presented
at subliminal and supraliminal exposure times. Numbers in parentheses represent the percentage of trials where participants experienced change
blindness, and failed to detect the change.

3.2. Primary analysis

A 2 (distractor scene valence: positive vs. negative)  2 (distractor duration: short subliminal vs. long supralimi-
nal)  2 (change scene valence: positive vs. negative) repeated measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted with
the latter as within-subject factors, and anxiety group (high vs. low) as a between-subjects factor. Because the data were
positively skewed, change detection latencies were log transformed, and subsequently an inverse log was applied to values
associated with signicant results (see Aginsky & Tarr, 2000).
This analysis revealed a signicant main effect of anxiety group, F(1, 37) = 4.27, p = .046. Overall, participants in the high
anxiety group detected changes more slowly (M = 23.66s, SE = 1.04) than participants in the low anxiety group, (M = 20.23s,
SE = 1.06).
A three-way interaction was observed between distractor scene valence, distractor duration and anxiety group,
F(1, 37) = 5.80, p = .021. This interaction is illustrated in Fig. 2, and it was explored further by analysing change detection
latencies separately for the high and low anxiety groups. For the low anxiety group there was no effect of distractor valence,
F(1, 25) = 1.98, n.s., no effect of distractor duration, F(1, 25) = 1.81, n.s., and no interaction between these factors,
F(1, 25) = 1.13, n.s. For the high anxiety group, distractor scene valence interacted with distractor duration, F(1, 12) = 5.82,
p = .033. When highly anxious participants were presented with negative distractor scenes, they detected changes more
quickly when these scenes were presented at short subliminal durations, compared to long supraliminal durations,
F(1, 12) = 7.31, p < .025 (see Fig. 2). Furthermore, for highly anxious participants, changes were detected more quickly in
the short duration (subliminal) condition, when the distractor scene was negative, rather than positive, F(1, 12) = 6.81,
p < .025 (see Fig. 2). Finally, when emotionally negative distractor scenes were presented in the short duration (subliminal)
condition, change detection latencies of the anxious participants (19.24s) and non-anxious participants (20.69s) were equiv-
alent, t < 1, n.s.
Attentional control theory predicted that the impairment of goal directed scanning shown by anxious participants would
be especially apparent when participants scanned emotionally negative scenes. Contrary to this prediction, the interaction
between change scene valence and anxiety group failed to approach signicance, F < 1. However, the main effect of change
scene valence was signicant, F(1, 37) = 10.36, p = .003. Change detection latencies were generally faster for negative
(M = 19.77s, SE = 1.05), compared to positive (M = 24.27s, SE = 1.05) change scenes, and the magnitude of this effect did
not vary as a function of anxiety. However, interpretation of overall differences in change detection latency between the
two sets of change scenes is problematic, due to uncertainty as to whether the effect arises from the emotional valence
of the scenes per se, or from item effects driven by the salience of visual differences between scene pairs in each picture
set. It proved impossible to balance the visual salience of the changes in the positive and negative change scenes achieving
this would involve not only balancing the visual salience of the two sets of scenes (Itti & Koch, 2000), but also balancing the
salience of the visual difference between each pair of scenes.1 In order to explore the effect of change scene valence further, an
item analysis comparing change detection latencies, averaged across participants, for the negative and positive scenes was
undertaken. The aim of this was to establish whether the difference in change detection observed using our sample of emotional
pictures, could be generalised to a wider population of emotional scenes.2 The item analysis revealed no signicant difference
between log transformed change detection latencies for positive and negative change scenes, t(30) = 1.19, n.s. Because the effect
failed to generalise across items, the most parsimonious interpretation of the main effect of change scene valence observed in

It should be noted that the effects of distractor scene valence on change detection latency observed in the experiment did not suffer from this
interpretational problem, because for different participants the distractor scenes were rotated across the two sets of change scenes, and across the two duration
conditions. Furthermore, as Fig. 2 illustrates, effects of subliminal distractor valence varied critically as a function of anxiety.
Note that a similar analysis could not be performed with respect to the distractor scenes, and their inuence on change detection latency, because, as noted
earlier (see Section 2) for different participants the distractor scenes were rotated across the four duration and scene valence conditions.

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the participant analysis is that it may have been driven by a sub-set of the negative and/or positive change scenes. Accordingly,
this effect will not be discussed further.

3.3. Rates of change blindness

A nal analysis examined effects of anxiety group, distractor scene valence and distractor duration on the number of (CB)
trials in each condition. Because the overall rate of change blindness (failure to detect a change within 3 min) was relatively
low (6.6% of all trials), the data were transformed, following the recommendation of Winer (1971):
X0 X :5
No signicant main effects or interactions were observed in this analysis. Thus the rate of change blindness shown by par-
ticipant classied as high (6.7%) and low (6.4%) in anxiety did not differ, F < 1. Similarly, rates of change blindness on trials with
positive (6.6%) and negative (6.5%) distractor scenes did not differ, F < 1, and rates of change blindness on trials with long (6.9%)
and short (6.3%) distractor durations did not differ, F < 1. None of the interaction terms approached signicance: all F < 1.

4. Discussion

4.1. Attentional control theory nding

Two main ndings emerged from the experiment. Firstly, as predicted by attentional control theory, participants who
were high in trait anxiety performed the change detection task more slowly on average, by a margin of 3.4s. This is con-
sistent with the proposal of Eysenck et al. (2007) that anxious participants will be impaired on tasks that require goal-direc-
ted scanning in visually complex environments. Contrary to prediction, the magnitude of this impairment did not vary as a
function of change scene valence.

4.2. Main nding not predicted by attentional control theory

The second main nding was that anxious, but not non-anxious participants were inuenced by the emotional valence
and exposure duration of the distractor scenes. The precise nature of this effect, depicted in Fig. 2, was intriguing, and
was not predicted by attentional control theory. When anxious participants scanned scenes that were accompanied by neg-
atively valenced distractor scenes at subliminal exposure times, change detection latency was reduced. That is, anxious par-
ticipants detected changes more rapidly when negative distractor scenes were presented subliminally rather than
supraliminally; and anxious participants detected changes more rapidly when subliminal distractor scenes were negative
rather than positive. Though not predicted, this pattern is broadly consistent with the conclusion of Bar-Haim et al.
(2007) that subliminal presentation of emotionally threatening information is associated with stronger effects on attention
and performance, and is also consistent with neuroimaging work showing that activity in the amygdala, a structure associ-
ated with attention which has rich inter-connections with visual cortex (see Phelps et al., 2006), is sensitive to the emotional
valence of a stimulus, independently of conscious perceptual awareness (Whalen et al., 1998).
Furthermore, the nding that negatively valenced distractor scenes can facilitate change detection is broadly consistent
with the recent nding of Becker (2009) that negatively valenced distractor information can facilitate visual search times.
However, in the current study this nding was limited to the condition in which negatively valenced information was pre-
sented subliminally, and was specic to participants who were high in anxiety. The distractor faces included in the Becker
(2009) study were presented briey (75 ms), but participants awareness of these stimuli was not assessed, and as noted ear-
lier participant anxiety was not assessed. The current ndings indicate that further study of how perceptual processing and
attentional scanning are moderated by awareness of emotionally negative distractor information and by anxiety is likely to
be a fruitful avenue of investigation.
The empirical pattern depicted in Fig. 2 is inconsistent with the prediction derived from attentional control theory, that in
anxiety attentional scanning will be impaired by inadvertent capture of attention when negative distractor scenes are pre-
sented. That is, features of the emotional distractor scene should have impaired goal-directed scanning by drawing attention
to inappropriate spatial locations. Instead, change detection latencies were reduced in the presence of negative distractor scenes,
when these were presented at brief-subliminal exposure times. Two alternative interpretations of this nding are proposed.

4.2.1. First interpretation of results

Our rst interpretation involves reconceptualising the attentional processing components recruited by our modied icker
task. As discussed in the introduction, a large body of evidence supports the proposal that anxious individuals show an atten-
tional bias for emotionally negative or threatening information (Bar-Haim et al., 2007; Cisler et al., 2009). A question which
has been the subject of considerable debate is whether this bias arises from an increased tendency to move attention towards
negatively valenced visual information (Mogg, Holmes, Garner, & Bradley, 2008) or a difculty in disengaging attention from
negatively valenced information (Fox, Russo, Bowles, & Dutton, 2001). In their recent review, Cisler et al. (2009) conclude that
both components of attention play a role. An alternative conceptualisation of our task recognises that when distractor scenes

Please cite this article in press as: Gregory, S. M., & Lambert, A. Anxiety, conscious awareness and change detection. Consciousness and Cog-
nition (2011), doi:10.1016/j.concog.2011.09.009
8 S.M. Gregory, A. Lambert / Consciousness and Cognition xxx (2011) xxxxxx

are presented with brief subliminal exposure times, performance is unlikely to be affected by the problem of disengaging
attention from features of the task irrelevant scene. In this condition the distractor scenes were presented for just 33 ms prior
to onset of the mask, and under these conditions it seems unlikely that there would be sufcient time for attention to become
fully engaged with features of the distractor scene. Thirty-three milliseconds would certainly be too brief for participants to
programme and execute a saccadic eye movement: these processes are generally thought to require well over 100 ms to exe-
cute (Findlay & Gilchrist, 2003). This exposure time is also likely to be too brief for covert attention to become fully engaged
with the object(s) on the distractor scene (see Duncan, Ward, & Shapiro, 1994; Egeth & Yantis, 1997). Clearly, for performance
impairment arising from delayed disengagement to be observed, attention must rst be engaged with an object or location.
With subliminal exposure times, features or objects in the negative distractor scene may stimulate attentional orienting in
anxious participants, consistent with earlier evidence showing faster search times when emotionally threatening information
is present in the environment (Becker, 2009; Byrne & Eysenck, 1995; Cisler et al., 2009). However, due to the extreme brevity
of the display, attention fails to become engaged with that feature or object. Thus, attention may be stimulated into a dynamic
state by features of the negative scene, but rendered free-oating by its abrupt disappearance which precludes attentional
engagement and conscious awareness of the features or objects which provoked the attention movement. Thus, our results
can be viewed as suggesting that subliminal presentation of emotionally negative information facilitated change detection
in anxious participants, by activating an attentional scanning process (Becker, 2009; Phelps et al., 2006).
Viewed from this perspective, presentation of negative distractor scenes in the long duration (supraliminal) condition
represents a very different situation. Exposure time in this case was long enough for attention to become engaged with ob-
jects in the distractor scene, leading to conscious awareness. Indeed, our analysis included only those trials where partici-
pants evidenced some awareness of the content of the distractor scene. Earlier work (Bar-Haim et al., 2007; Cisler et al.,
2009; Fox et al., 2001) suggests that difculty in disengaging attention should be apparent in this condition. Consistent with
this interpretation, Fig. 2 shows that, while subliminal presentation of negative distractor scenes reduced change detection
latency, change detection latency was slowest of all when these same scenes were presented supraliminally.

4.2.2. Second interpretation of results

A second possible interpretation of the pattern shown in Fig. 2 appeals to the distinction between two aspects of attention:
general alertness and spatially specic selective attention. According to the inuential model of Posner and Petersen (1990;
see also Fan, McCandliss, Sommer, Raz, & Posner, 2002) the attention system of the human brain comprises two rather dis-
tinct sub-systems, which are concerned with general alertness and with spatially selective orienting respectively. A second
possible interpretation of the pattern displayed in Fig. 2 is that the attentional sensitivity of anxious individuals is manifest
not only in the operation of spatially selective attention, resulting in the well documented biases that have already been dis-
cussed, but also manifest in the response of general alerting mechanisms to emotional stimuli (Posner & Petersen, 1990).
According to this interpretation, in anxious individuals the general alerting component of attention is also sensitive to the
presence of emotionally negative information, so that presentation of emotionally negative distractor scenes provokes an in-
crease in alertness, increasing the efciency of attentional scanning and reducing change detection latency. An obvious prob-
lem for this interpretation is to explain why a general alerting effect of negative distractor scenes should be manifest when
these are presented subliminally, but not when they are presented supraliminally. In light of this problem, the rst interpre-
tation, outlined above appears preferable at this stage. On the other hand, it is conceivable that in the supraliminal condition,
a general alerting effect could be masked by a countervailing effect, which arises from a problem in disengaging attention
from features of the negative distractor scenes.3 Although disentangling these opposing inuences on change detection perfor-
mance will be challenging, eye monitoring data (see below) could provide a way of operationalising attentional engagement and
disengagement. For example, difculty in disengaging attention should be accompanied by an increase in xation duration.

4.2.3. Anxiety and neuroticism

It is known that self-reported anxiety covaries with depression and also with the personality trait of neuroticism (Grifth
et al., 2010; Luteijn & Bouman, 1988). This raises the possibility that our ndings may have been mediated by depression and/
or neuroticism, rather than by anxiety.4 For example, previous work has shown that depressed individuals tend to respond more
slowly than non-depressed individuals, especially on tasks that require attentional set shifting and executive control (Austin,
Mitchell, & Goodwin, 2001). Thus, one might propose that general slowing, related to depression, might account for the differ-
ence in performance between our two experimental groups. Alternatively, one might propose that the difference in performance
between the high and low anxiety groups might be driven by neuroticism, which also covaries with anxiety. For example, neu-
rotic individuals may adopt a more conservative response criterion in the change detection task, viewing more cycles of stimuli,
before releasing a response. The net effect of both of these inuences would be to produce a general slowing of change detection
time. However, as Fig. 2 shows, the difference in performance between the high and low anxiety groups cannot be characterised
simply in terms of general slowing. Indeed, the experimental condition which yielded the fastest mean detection time was the
condition in which anxious individuals detected a change in the presence of subliminally presented negative distractor scenes.
Thus, an overall difference between the two experimental groups with respect to either information processing speed or

We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer for identifying this possibility.
We appreciate this alternative interpretation of the data provided by a second anonymous reviewer.

Please cite this article in press as: Gregory, S. M., & Lambert, A. Anxiety, conscious awareness and change detection. Consciousness and Cog-
nition (2011), doi:10.1016/j.concog.2011.09.009
S.M. Gregory, A. Lambert / Consciousness and Cognition xxx (2011) xxxxxx 9

response criterion is insufcient to account for the pattern displayed in Fig. 2. Notwithstanding this point, given the well doc-
umented covariation between anxiety, depression and neuroticism (Grifth et al., 2010; Luteijn & Bouman, 1988), a valuable
direction for future research would be to tease out the distinctive contributions of each of these factors to change detection
performance and attentional behaviour. A related point is that because anxiety appears to be a heterogeneous disorder, future
investigations may benet from performing ner grained analyses of the relationship between change detection performance
and different sub-types of anxiety, such as generalised anxiety, social anxiety, or panic disorder (see Watson, 2005).

4.3. Possible future investigation

It is clear that future investigation of change detection performance in anxious and non-anxious individuals would also
benet greatly from inclusion of eye monitoring data. Such data would enable two important questions provoked by the cur-
rent ndings to be answered. The rst of these concerns the overall effect of trait anxiety on change detection latency: anx-
ious individuals generally detected changes more slowly than non-anxious controls by a margin of several seconds. Eye
movement data would allow one to determine whether this performance impairment is associated with distinctive changes
in eye movement behaviour, such as number and duration of xations, or number and magnitude of saccades. In addition,
eye movement data would enable us to gain a better understanding of the processes responsible for the speeding up of
change detection that was observed when anxious individuals were presented with emotionally negative distractor scenes
at subliminal exposure durations. Is this effect associated with a reduction in the duration of individual xations or with a
reduction in the number of saccades needed to identify the change?
Eye movement data could also shed light on a further issue associated with interpreting performance of change detection
tasks of the kind employed in the current study. Evidence reported by Mitroff, Simons and Levin (2004; Simons, Chabris,
Schnur, & Levin, 2002) shows that in addition to attentional processes, memory and decision processes also contribute to per-
formance of change detection tasks. Eye monitoring would enable one to determine whether the effects of participant anxiety
and distractor scene valence described here, are or are not, accompanied by observable changes in eye movements. Finding
the former would be consistent with an attentional interpretation of differences in change detection latency, while the latter
would be consistent with a non-attentional interpretation, in terms of memory and decision processes (see Simons, 2000).
Many theories of attention propose a close functional linkage between the selective allocation of covert attention and
overt eye movements (see Findlay & Gilchrist, 2003; Rizzolatti, Riggio, Dascola, & Umilta, 1987). In light of this it would
be surprising if the well documented attentional biases that have been observed in the dot-probe, emotional spatial cueing
and visual search tasks were not associated with alterations in the eye scanning behaviour of anxious individuals. Negative
ndings, such as those reported by Freeman et al. (2000) have, not unreasonably, fostered the conclusion that covert atten-
tional biases in anxiety are not associated with detectable changes in patterns of eye scanning behaviour. A potentially
important implication of the current study is that change detection may provide a fruitful platform for re-examining this
issue. One advantage of the modied change detection task employed here is that differences in performance observed be-
tween experimental conditions and between groups were in the order of seconds, rather than milliseconds, providing an
appropriate temporal grain for studying eye movement behaviour.

Appendix A. Picture description and mean valence ratings for positive and negative distractor images

Positive distractor images Negative distractor images

IAPS number Mean valence Description IAPS number Mean valence Description
1440 8.19 Seal 2095 1.79 Toddler
1920 7.90 Porpoise 2730 2.45 Native boy
2057 7.81 Father 2800 1.78 Sad child
2080 8.09 Babies 3030 1.91 Mutilation
2150 7.92 Baby 3230 2.02 Dying man
2370 7.14 Three men 6230 2.37 Aimed gun
2395 7.49 Family 6570 2.19 Suicide
2550 7.77 Couple 7359 2.92 Pie with bug
2660 7.75 Baby 9250 2.57 War victim
4641 7.20 Romance 9301 2.26 Toilet
5260 7.34 Waterfall 9342 2.85 Pollution
5831 7.63 Seagulls 9435 2.27 Accident
5910 7.80 Fireworks 9530 2.93 Boys
7330 7.69 Ice cream 9561 2.68 Sick kitten
7502 7.75 Castle 9570 1.68 Dog
8190 8.10 Skier 9920 2.50 Car accident
Overall mean 7.72 Overall mean 2.32

Please cite this article in press as: Gregory, S. M., & Lambert, A. Anxiety, conscious awareness and change detection. Consciousness and Cog-
nition (2011), doi:10.1016/j.concog.2011.09.009
10 S.M. Gregory, A. Lambert / Consciousness and Cognition xxx (2011) xxxxxx

Appendix B. Picture description and mean valence ratings for positive and negative change images

Positive change images Negative change images

IAPS number Mean valence Description IAPS number Mean valence Description
1340 8.19 Women 2053 2.47 Baby
1460 7.90 Kitten 2205 1.95 Hospital
1610 7.81 Rabbit 2683 2.62 War
1999 8.09 Mickey 2750 2.56 Bum
2070 7.92 Baby 3350 1.88 Infant
2216 7.14 Children 3500 2.21 Attack
2299 7.49 Family 3530 1.80 Attack
2340 7.77 Family 6313 1.98 Attack
2345 7.75 Children 6315 2.31 Beaten female
2360 7.20 Family 9050 2.43 Plane crash
2388 7.34 Kids 9300 2.26 Dirty
2530 7.63 Couple 9330 2.89 Garbage
4626 7.80 Wedding 9415 2.82 Handicapped
5780 7.69 Nature 9520 2.46 Kids
8461 7.75 Happy teens 9810 2.09 KKK rally
8496 8.10 Water slide 9911 2.30 Car accident
Overall mean 7.72 Overall mean 2.31


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