People pay more attention to stimuli they associate with danger

October 10, 2019

A new analysis of how people prioritize their attention when determining safety and danger in busy settings, such as crossing a road, suggests that a person will pay more attention to something if they learn it is associated with danger. Toby Wise of University College London, U.K., and colleagues report their findings in PLOS Computational Biology.

Previous research suggests that attention tends to be grabbed by obvious threats, such as angry faces, and that a person may pay more attention to stimuli they do not know much about. However, it has been unclear how these factors influence what people pay attention to when trying to learn whether multiple stimuli are safe or dangerous.

To address this question, Wise and colleagues recruited 65 people for a learning task with multiple rounds. In a given round, each participant viewed two symbols on a screen, each representing a probability of receiving an electrical shock. The participant reported perceived probabilities, and then received shocks according to the actual probabilities. The symbols acted as competing stimuli with differing uncertainty, as one had the same shock probability in each round, while the other's varied.

Computational analysis of the results suggests that the way people learn about dangerous stimuli affects how they allocate attention. If an individual learns that something is associated with danger, it will grab their attention. However, this is not related to uncertainty; dangerous stimuli grab a person's attention regardless of how confident they are in their knowledge about them. The results also suggest that attention then influences how people learn about danger; stimuli they pay attention to are perceived as more threatening.

"This study shows that our attention is intimately linked to how we learn about danger," Wise says.

Next, the researchers will investigate whether the learning processes they found to be important in determining how attention is directed behave differently in people with clinical anxiety. They also hope to investigate the neural systems involved in the interaction between learning and attention.
Peer-reviewed / Experimental study / People

In your coverage please use this URL to provide access to the freely available article in PLOS Computational Biology:

Citation: Wise T, Michely J, Dayan P, Dolan RJ (2019) A computational account of threat-related attentional bias. PLoS Comput Biol 15(10): e1007341.

Funding: T.W. is supported by a Wellcome Trust ( Sir Henry Wellcome Fellowship (206460/17/Z). J.M. was supported by a fellowship from the German Research Foundation (MI 2158/1-1). R.J.D. holds a Wellcome Trust Investigator award (098362/Z/12/Z). P.D. is supported by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation ( and the Max Planck Society ( The Max Planck UCL Centre is a joint initiative supported by UCL and the Max Planck Society. The Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging is supported by core funding from the Wellcome Trust (203147/Z/16/Z). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Related Learning Articles from Brightsurf:

Learning the language of sugars
We're told not to eat too much sugar, but in reality, all of our cells are covered in sugar molecules called glycans.

When learning on your own is not enough
We make decisions based on not only our own learning experience, but also learning from others.

Learning more about particle collisions with machine learning
A team of Argonne scientists has devised a machine learning algorithm that calculates, with low computational time, how the ATLAS detector in the Large Hadron Collider would respond to the ten times more data expected with a planned upgrade in 2027.

Getting kids moving, and learning
Children are set to move more, improve their skills, and come up with their own creative tennis games with the launch of HomeCourtTennis, a new initiative to assist teachers and coaches with keeping kids active while at home.

How expectations influence learning
During learning, the brain is a prediction engine that continually makes theories about our environment and accurately registers whether an assumption is true or not.

Technology in higher education: learning with it instead of from it
Technology has shifted the way that professors teach students in higher education.

Learning is optimized when we fail 15% of the time
If you're always scoring 100%, you're probably not learning anything new.

School spending cuts triggered by great recession linked to sizable learning losses for learning losses for students in hardest hit areas
Substantial school spending cuts triggered by the Great Recession were associated with sizable losses in academic achievement for students living in counties most affected by the economic downturn, according to a new study published today in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Lessons in learning
A new Harvard study shows that, though students felt like they learned more from traditional lectures, they actually learned more when taking part in active learning classrooms.

Learning to look
A team led by JGI scientists has overhauled the perception of inovirus diversity.

Read More: Learning News and Learning Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to