It’s breakfast time, and you head to the fridge to grab some orange juice but just as you go to pour it into your cup, you hear someone calling to you, turn toward the sound, and pour it into your cereal bowl instead or maybe even onto the floor. We’ve all been there – had times when we get distracted and our bodies have an automatic response that put us on the wrong course. A new study has found that faces are particularly distracting, and that emotional faces in particular influence our movements on a subconscious level.
In the study, led by Elisabetta Ambron, then at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy and now at the University of Pennsylvania, the researchers asked participants to move a stylus on a touchscreen from a starting point to one of two possible locations, a green or blue dot. At the same time as the targets, a face came onto the screen and participants had to select the correct target of the action based on either the emotion or gender of the face. For instance, participants reached the green or the red dot depending on whether the face displayed happiness or anger in one experiment, and a male or a female in a second experiment.
As published in the journal Cognitive Neuroscience, they found that in both experiments participants’ movements veered toward the faces rather than the dots. They also found that even when the task was focused on gender, the emotion on the face caused participants to deviate in their movements. The largest deviation was toward angry male faces.
Ambron says that the work shows that “socially relevant stimuli, which grab our attention, have also the ability to influence our actions.”
CNS spoke with Ambron about the study, its results and its implications, including in clinical settings.
CNS: How did you become personally interested in this research area?
Ambron: One of my major interests is the interaction between attention and action systems and how the integration between these abilities changes as consequence of brain damage. One possible outcome of these changes is the tendency observed in some patients to perform a movement toward the focus of attention.
For instance, in imitating a gesture patients may perform their gesture close to the examiner hand and they might even overlap their hand with the examiner’s hand as their attention is directed towards that location (phenomenon known as Closing-in Behavior). Behaviors of this sort may reflect primitive default tendencies of the motor system to respond towards salient attention-grabbing stimuli. Overall normal adults are able to inhibit this tendency, but not all the time.
In some situations, they might show similar effects, that we could call “motor distractibility” but of smaller magnitude. So I became interested in exploring the possible factors involved in such inference. Discussing with the co-authors of the paper, Francesco Foroni suggested the use of male and female faces as possible sources of interference as these stimuli are socially relevant and important attentional cues for adults. So we designed these two studies.
CNS: Can you define motor distractibility a bit more?
Ambron: Motor distractibility is the automatic response of the motor system to stimuli, which are able to attract our attention. For instance, many of us have experience the sensation of grasping an object instead of the one we wanted just because we were thinking about something else and that specific object attracted our attention. Or walking along the street, you may move toward a shop just because you’re attracted by its lights rather than with the specific purpose of buying something. The effect of motor distractibility can be observed in both temporal and spatial parameter of the movement, but I am particularly interested in the movement trajectory.
CNS: What have we known previously about factors affecting motor distractibility?
Ambron: As the a fundamental condition to elicit motor distractibility is that participants’ attention should be capture and directed towards a specific location, the characteristics of the stimuli play a major role in determining motor distractibility. For example, more salient and attractive stimuli will be more likely to capture participants’ attention and induce motor distractibility. On the other hand, individual cognitive resources do also play an important role. As in the above-mentioned example, motor distractibility will be more likely to occur when our cognitive resources are low and attention can be easily captured.
CNS: What was the major goal of this study?
Ambron: In this study, we wanted to explore which specific feature of a face between emotion or the gender was able to enhanced motor distractibility. Interestingly, when we attend a specific feature of the faces, the other characteristics are also implicitly processed. For instance, when we are asked to identify the gender of a face, we will also indirectly process the emotions, and the interaction between both these factors will determine motor distractibility. A main goal of this work was to explore the relative weight of emotion and gender, when explicitly attended or indirectly processed, on motor distractibility.
CNS: Why did you choose gender and emotion to study?
Ambron: We chose emotion and gender because of their most immediate features of the face to be processes and with a rich debate regarding the temporal processing of these two features. We did not include other characteristics like the race for practical reasons, but this factor represent one of our future lines of research.
CNS: What were your most excited to find? Were any findings surprising?
Ambron: There are several exciting findings in this study. First I really like the idea that participants’ movement trajectories veered towards the faces in both tasks. This is an important finding as it confirms the role of faces as attention-grabbing stimuli and extends their influence to motor control.
Second, I found the modulation of this effect between the experiments very interesting, as we found that emotions of the face had an effect in the movement trajectory, also when processed implicitly and participants were attending at the gender of the face. This was a surprising result but highlighted the power of emotions in influencing our action even when in situation where they are not specifically attended.
CNS: Does this work related to work on gender, emotion, and implicit bias (e.g., the work of Jon Freeman and others)?
Ambron: Although our paradigm might recall studies on implicit bias and the works of John Freeman are a good example, our purpose was not to investigate attraction/avoidance behaviors and to infer implicit social attitudes. Our aim was to investigate how attention and action interact. We used faces because they are relevant stimuli for adult and important attentional cues and therefore ideal candidates to elicit motor distractibility. Our goal was not only to examine whether or not these stimuli interfere with the movement but also to investigate whether the trajectory of the movement veered towards these stimuli, as evidence of the influence of attention into action.
CNS: What’s next for this line of work?
Ambron: We would like to continue this line of research manipulating other features of the face (e.g. race), but we are also interested in testing motor distractibility of a different type of stimuli, like food. In addition, we would like to use the present paradigm with in clinical populations. A possible target population could be patients with depression or patients with deficits in emotional processing.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz