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Attention and Emotion in Decision Making

Final Report Summary - AED (Attention and Emotion in Decision Making)

This research project sought to investigate the relationship between attention and valence. Earlier research mainly focused on effects of valence on people’s attention (Fox, Russo, Bowles, and Dutton, 2001). In our research project, the main question involved how attention affects evaluations. Specifically, we were interested in effects on evaluation when people observe others either directing their attention toward or away from an object. The state of the art in this research is that observing a person gazing at a neutral object leads to more positive evaluations of the object (referred to as mimetic desire, Bry, Treinen, Corneille, & Yzerbyt, 2011). Theoretical explanations for this phenomenon are evaluative conditioning (Bry et al., 2011) and a social communication account about people drawing inferences regarding the intentions of the person who is gazing at or away from something (Itier & Batty, 2009). In short, the evaluative conditioning account states that gazing at an object serves as an unconditioned stimulus (US) of positive valence that leads to positive evaluations of the object with which the US is paired. The communication account predicts that the evaluative meaning of the gaze is highly dependent on context and requires psychological processes about reading the mind of the person whose gaze is observed.
We found in our studies that the observation of a person directing attention toward an object leads to more positive evaluations for neutral and for threatening stimuli (Huber & Deutsch, 2014a). We also found this effect for attitudes regarding written statements that were gazed at or gazed away from (Huber & Deutsch, 2014b). In conclusion, the finding that threatening stimuli were evaluated more positively has theoretical implications, suggesting that gaze orientation does not exacerbate the object’s original valence (this would mean making negative stimuli even more negative when they are gazed at) and instead, gaze orientation toward an object seems to have either intrinsically positive valence or that it had positive meaning in this particular context.
We also identified two new boundary conditions reversing the effect of gaze direction on evaluation. One is a mismatch between the observer’s and the person’s reaction (Huber & Deutsch, 2014a) and a second is the observer’s group membership (Huber & Deutsch, 2014b). Both of these boundary conditions are more consistent with the communication account (because the effect of gaze direction is highly context-dependent) than with evaluative conditioning.
Finally, we believe this research has implications for clinical psychology. It may not only be the mere presence of another person when encountering an anxiety-evoking situation, that plays a role for social support (Gump & Kulik, 1997). In fact, observing another person’s gaze and the inferences that people draw based on this observation may play an important role.

Activities for career development included acquiring new methodological knowledge, gaining experience overseeing a group of student research assistants, gathering empirical foundations for publications, and working on academic qualifications. Reintegration activities included the attendance at national and European conferences (establishing a network of researchers in Europe) and initiating collaborations.

Societal implications of the project:
In addition, the implementation of this research project has affected several groups. The research activities lead to discussions and collaborations within the research group, and with other research groups.
In addition, students were involved and trained within this research and participated in lab meetings. A total of 11 (5 female) students received training on research methodology and conducting experimental research. Hiring decisions for the research assistants were entirely based on motivation, previous knowledge, and average grade.
Many students at the fellow’s home institution received first-hand insight into psychological research through participation in the experiments. After they participated, they were debriefed by research assistants and gained information into the goals and purpose of the research project. Explaining the methodology of psychological research conducted in the lab is an important goal to increase public knowledge about how psychology as a science operates and how psychological knowledge accumulates.