Portions of the research exploring this effect by Vanderbilt University psychologist David Zald and Yale University researchers Steven Most, Marvin Chun and David Widders will be published in the August issue of Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.
"We observed that people fail to detect visual images that appeared one-fifth of a second after emotional images, whereas they can detect those images with little problem after neutral images," Zald, assistant professor of psychology and member of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development, said.
Anyone who has ever slowed down to look at an accident as they are driving by--or has been stuck behind someone who has--is familiar with the "rubbernecking" effect. Even though we know we need to keep our eyes on the road, our emotions of concern, fear and curiosity cause us to stare out the window at the accident and slow to a crawl as we drive by.
Zald and his colleagues set out to determine if the rubbernecking effect carries over into more minute lapses of attention through two separate experiments.
In the first experiment, research subjects were shown hundreds of pictures that included a mix of disturbing images along with landscape or architectural photos. They were told to search the images for a particular target image. An irrelevant, emotionally negative or neutral picture preceded the target by two to eight items. The closer the negative pictures were to the target image, the more frequently the subject failed to spot the target. In a subsequent study, which has not yet been published, the researchers substituted erotic for negative images and found the same basic effect.