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Focusing on fear: Attentional disengagement from emotional faces

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Evidence suggests that anxiety is associated with a shift of visual attention toward threatening stimuli in the environment, such as facial expressions (Mogg & Bradley, 1999). More recent evidence, however, indicates that anxiety may be better characterized by a failure to rapidly disengage the visual attention system away from threat-related facial expressions (Fox, Russo, Bowles, & Dutton, 2001). The present study further investigates this delayed disengagement hypothesis. Results show that high trait-anxious individuals, in contrast to low trait-anxious individuals, take longer to classify peripheral target letters when fearful facial expressions were presented at fixation relative to sad, happy, or neutral expressions. These findings demonstrate a specific tendency to dwell on fear-relevant stimuli, as opposed to negative information in general. These findings are considered from an evolutionary perspective and the possible role of delayed disengagement from threat in the maintenance of anxiety states is also discussed.

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