Mahurin Honors College Capstone Experience/Thesis Projects


Psychological Sciences

Document Type



Sustained attention is necessary to accurately complete cognitive tasks. However, sustained attention can often be disrupted by distracting information. When distractors contain emotional content, past research suggests that they might attract attention. The rapid detection of emotional information is important in everyday life because emotion often emerges in social interaction, including unpleasant interactions where others might pose a threat. The attentional capture effects of emotional faces were explored by inserting them into a visual search task that included differing levels of perceptual load. Twenty-five younger adults and twenty older adults identified target letters in standard trials containing distracting elements, but also identified target letters in attentional capture trials in which images of neutral, angry, and happy facial expressions were added to naturally attract one’s attention. Response times and accuracies were measured. In both age groups, incompatible distractors that competed with the response to the target reduced accuracy relative to neutral distractors or distractors that were compatible with the response to the target. This pattern emerged both when the display was sparse and when it contained many distractors. Additionally, response times were influenced by the perceptual load on the display, with larger set sizes leading to longer response times. Attention capture effects emerged for both age groups such that participants responded faster on trials with face distractors than those with letters, suggesting that faces potentiated attentional deployment instead of disrupting it. Interestingly, under high perceptual loads, more positive face distractors were associated with higher accuracy for older adults which is partly consistent with an age-related positivity effect.

Advisor(s) or Committee Chair

Dr. Andrew Mienaltowski, Dr. Amy Brausch


Optometry | Psychiatry and Psychology