Threatening cues have a larger effect on perception than neutral cues

Panayiota Siskos ’23

Figure 1: Threatening cues and faces effect perceptual performance.

The theory of predictive coding states that the brain continuously creates a mental model of the surrounding environment using prior knowledge from memory. This mental model is then used to predict sensory input, such as anticipating a smell, a sound, or a touch.  A group of researchers from Stony Brook University and Columbia University studied the effect of threatening cues on sensory input predictions; they hypothesized that threatening cues will lead to quicker and extra-sensitive perceptual performance (becoming aware of an external event via one’s senses) compared to neutral cues, and that threatening faces are more easily  identified than neutral faces. It was predicted that improved perceptual performance in response to threatening cues is due to greater association with mental imagery via the creation of sharper mental templates for threatening faces compared to neutral faces.

Data was retrieved from 131 Stony Brook University students, and Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire-2 (VVIQ-2) assessed mental imagery vividness on a 1 (no image) to 5 (clear and vivid as normal vision) scale of how mental representations of situations are conjured. The cue task examined impact of threat-related cues on perceptual decision making, and first showed a fear face cue, neutral face cue, or uninformative cue and showed whether making  fearful (or not) decisions, neutral (or not) decisions, or cue-related information was not given and only asked if faces were fearful or neutral. Both fearful and neutral face stimuli were shown after all cue types, and participants decided between neutral and fear face stimuli.

The results of the study showed that perception of fearful faces was higher than perception of neutral faces, and that trials using fear cues had greater accuracy, larger d-prime (statistics for signal detection theory), and faster reaction time. For reaction time, fear cues were faster than neutral ones, and analyses indicated congruent trials, those that are corresponding, had faster reaction time than incongruent trials. Higher VVIQ-2 scores were associated with larger accuracy and larger d-prime for fear and neutral cue trials, however there was no faster reaction time for neutral cues. Correlational analysis did not show a relationship between scores and accuracy for uninformative cue trials, and regression analysis indicated positive relationship predicting scores and informative cue accuracy, which was reflected with d-prime. Regression analysis indicated higher fear cue d-prime had slight association with higher scores after controlling neutral cue d-prime. 

Ultimately,  this research holds great value because humans utilize previous knowledge to detect coming stimuli and threats, and during these times decisions must be made rapidly in order to ensure one’s survival. While the results of this study suggest that previous threat-related cues improve perceptual decision making, the psychological processes behind this phenomenon are unknown. Future research could expand on this by investigating the role of mental imagery in treatment responsivity and outcome of anxious pathology.

Works Cited:

[1]G, Imbriano, et al., “The role of imagery in threat-related perceptual decision making.” Emotion  (2019).

[2]Image retrieved from:

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