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Project: A multi-modal approach to explore the influence of negative affect on proactive vision

01/10/15 – 30/09/18

Humans are very efficient at perceiving threatening visual objects (e.g., a snake in the grass), especially when they are mentally prepared to do so. Snakes are more common in Australia than in Belgium; therefore, a tubular shape in a garden in Ghent will usually be identified as a garden hose, whereas a similar object in a grass field in Perth will be perceived as a snake. But what happens if expectations are somehow “tuned” towards the worst possible outcome, because arousal or apprehension is high? Would we identify threatening signals more quickly? Would ambiguous but non-threatening objects be more easily perceived as potentially dangerous? This research project seeks to better understand how negative affect shapes our expectations of the world by attributing a threatening connotation to visually ambiguous stimuli. High and low anxious participants will be asked to recognize neutral and emotional scenes whose content is gradually revealed by adding details to a blurred picture. Effects of (state and trait) anxiety will systematically be assessed by using state-of-the-art psychophysiological and computational modeling tools. Our hypothesis is that, because highly anxious people generally tend to expect bad things, unpleasant scenes will be recognized faster than neutral scenes. Ultimately, this project will allow us to gain new insight into the dynamic interplay of visual perception and (negative) affect.