Emotional Distractors Can Enhance Attention

Tamara J. Sussman, Wendy Heller, Gregory A. Miller, Aprajita Mohanty

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The deleterious effects of emotional distractors on attention have been well demonstrated. However, it is unclear whether emotional distractors inevitably disrupt task-relevant attention. In the research reported here, the impact of the valence and arousal of distracting emotional stimuli and individual differences in anxiety on task-relevant processing were examined using multilevel modeling. Consistent with prior literature, results showed that high-arousal negative distractors, compared with positive and neutral distractors, were associated with poorer task-relevant attention. However, low-arousal negative distractors were associated with better task-relevant performance than were positive and neutral distractors. Furthermore, these effects were accentuated by individual differences in worry. These findings challenge assumptions that distraction and worry must be minimized for augmented attentional performance. Overall, these results emphasize the importance of taking into account emotional dimensions of arousal and valence as well as individual differences in anxiety when examining attention in the presence of emotional distractors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2322-2328
Number of pages7
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2013


  • anxiety
  • arousal
  • attention
  • distractors
  • emotions
  • valence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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