Fear is thought to facilitate the detection of threatening stimuli. Few studies have examined the effects of task-irrelevant phobic cues in search tasks that do not involve semantic categorization. In a combined reaction time and eye-tracking experiment we investigated whether peripheral visual cues capture initial attention and distract from the execution of goal-directed eye movements. Twenty-one spider-phobic patients and 21 control participants were instructed to search for a color singleton while ignoring task-irrelevant abrupt-onset distractors which contained either a small picture of a spider (phobic), a flower (non-phobic, but similar to spiders in shape), a mushroom (non-phobic, and not similar to spiders in shape), or no picture. As expected, patients' reaction times were longer on trials with spider distractors. However, eye movements revealed that this was not due to attentional capture by spider distractors; patients more often fixated on all distractors with pictures, but their reaction times were delayed by longer fixation durations on spider distractors. These data do not support automatic capture of attention by phobic cues but suggest that phobic patients fail to disengage attention from spiders.
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