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People in an impulsive state are influenced mainly by the immediate incentive value of appetitive stimuli, whereas people in a reflective state usually also consider the (sometimes negative) long-term consequences of such stimuli. In order to consider all information, we hypothesize that, people in reflective states distribute their attention over all available information, whereas people in impulsive states focus their attention on the most salient information. We measured cognitive states using eye-blink rate (Experiment 1) or induced them with a procedural priming manipulation (Experiments 2 and 3). In eye-tracking Experiments 1 and 2, we established that people in an impulsive state indeed focus their attention on the salient information, whereas people in a reflective state distribute their attention. Moreover, we show that this attentional difference extends to evaluative judgments (Experiment 3), which could potentially contribute to people’s increased propensity to risk in impulsive states. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2013 APA, all rights reserved)
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Research Article
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Cognitive States Alter the Focus of Attention
Chantal den Daas,
1
Michael Häfner,
1
and John de Wit
1,2
1
Department of Social Psychology, Utrecht University, The Netherlands,
2
University of New South
Wales, Sydney, Australia
Abstract. People in an impulsive state are influenced mainly by the immediate incentive value of appetitive stimuli, whereas people in a
reflective state usually also consider the (sometimes negative) long-term consequences of such stimuli. In order to consider all information, we
hypothesize that, people in reflective states distribute their attention over all available information, whereas people in impulsive states focus
their attention on the most salient information. We measured cognitive states using eye-blink rate (Experiment 1) or induced them with a
procedural priming manipulation (Experiments 2 and 3). In eye-tracking Experiments 1 and 2, we established that people in an impulsive state
indeed focus their attention on the salient information, whereas people in a reflective state distribute their attention. Moreover, we show that this
attentional difference extends to evaluative judgments (Experiment 3), which could potentially contribute to peoples increased propensity to
risk in impulsive states.
Keywords: cognitive states, impulsive versus reflective behavior, attention, sexual attractiveness, eye-tracker, eye-blink rate (EBR)
Impulsiveness is considered an important factor in risk-tak-
ing behavior. It has been shown, for instance, that people
who are more impulsive are more likely to overeat or to
engage in risky sexual behavior (Clift, Wilkins, &
Davidson, 1993; Cooper, Agosha, & Sheldon, 2000;
Donohew et al., 2000; Dudley, Rostosky, Korfhage, &
Zimmerman, 2004; Guerrieri et al., 2007; Hoyle, Fejfar,
& Miller, 2000). Whereas these findings suggest that
impulsiveness makes people more prone to behave in risky
ways, it is less clear why exactly this is the case.
Dual-system models, such as the reflective-impulsive
model (Strack & Deutsch, 2004), suggest that the increased
propensity for risk-taking of people in impulsive states is
related to their mode of information processing. Whereas
people in an impulsive state usually process and ultimately
are driven by the immediate incentive value of incoming
information (through stimulus-valence-behavior associa-
tions), people in a reflective state are able to abstract from
the immediate input and bridge temporal gaps in order to
process long-term consequences. Hence, people in a reflec-
tive state are able to oversee immediate rewards and take
long-term consequences into account.
Building on the differentiation between modes of infor-
mation processing, we posit that also attention is spread dif-
ferentially in reflective and impulsive states: In order to
strive successfully for valued long-term outcomes, people
in a reflective state must attend to more than the immediate
incentive information. They have to distribute their atten-
tion over all available information. Conversely, we hypoth-
esize that people in an impulsive state focus mainly on
salient information. The aim of the studies reported here
was to put these hypotheses to an experimental test. Specif-
ically, we set out to investigate whether impulsive versus
reflective cognitive states affect which information people
pay attention to.
Attention in Impulsive States
The reflective-impulsive model (Strack & Deutsch, 2004)
proposes that behavior is determined jointly by a reflective
and an impulsive system. In the impulsive system, behavior
is directly driven by perceptual input through mere associ-
ations. As only the most salient information becomes input,
it is this salient information and its associations that activate
behavioral schemata, and, ultimately result in behavior
(Strack & Deutsch, 2004). Stated differently, the behavior
of people in an impulsive state is most likely influenced
by the information that initially attracts attention. Other
information is unlikely to enter the system as it would
require intention and effort, both of which people are usu-
ally lacking in an impulsive state (Strack & Deutsch, 2004).
What do people in impulsive states focus their attention
on, or, in other words, what information is salient? We
define saliency as information that stands out somehow.
Generally, information that stands out is information that
is considered emotional (Schimmack, 2005), or motivation-
ally relevant (Bruner, 1957; Bruner & Postman, 1949; Den
Daas, Hfner, de Wit, 2012). Information can also stand out
because of its perceptual features (e.g., contrast and lumi-
nance) or because of its predominant presence (Mann &
Ward, 2004).
Previous research has shown that stimuli that are linked
to motives of survival and reproduction are salient by estab-
lishing an attentional bias for threatening stimuli
2013 Hogrefe Publishing Experimental Psychology 2013; Vol. 60(5):313–323
DOI: 10.1027/1618-3169/a000201
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
(e.g., snakes or spiders, hman, Flykt, & Esteves, 2001),
food stimuli (e.g., Papies, Stroebe, & Aarts, 2008), beautiful
people (e.g., Maner et al., 2003), and tempting sexual
stimuli (Buodo, Sarlo, & Palomba, 2002; Most, Smith,
Cooter, Levy, & Zald, 2007; Wright & Adams, 1999). Note
however, that although these stimuli are connected to
motives of survival and reproduction, letting these stimuli
direct behavior (through behavioral associations) more
often than not may result in risky decisions (e.g., eating
attractive but unhealthy food, sexual risk decisions without
consideration of the long-term consequences).
Attention in Reflective States
People in a reflective state can move beyond the informa-
tion given, at least if they have the capacity and/or motiva-
tion to do so. Their behavior reflects syllogistic reasoning
(Strack & Deutsch, 2004). Specifically, in a reflective state,
the reflective-impulsive model suggests that knowledge
about the value and probability of the potential conse-
quences is weighed and integrated to reach a preference
for a behavioral option. If a decision is made, the reflective
system activates appropriate behavioral schema through a
mechanism of intending (Strack & Deutsch, 2004). As
information about different behavioral options is weighed
and integrated (Strack & Deutsch, 2004), we posit that peo-
ple in a reflective state often prefer to consider a wider
range of information than only the most salient. Moreover,
we propose that people in a reflective state extend their
attention beyond the most salient stimuli.
Notably, the quality of the salient stimuli does not
change in reflective states compared to impulsive states.
Stimuli that are emotional, rewarding, and relevant argu-
ably still attract attention. However, in reflective states peo-
ple are able to direct their attention to other non-salient
stimuli as well. Attending to all available information by
disengaging from the salient stimuli provides people in
reflective states with more information and distraction from
the salient stimuli (Mischel & Ebbesen, 1970; Peake, Hebl,
& Mischel, 2002), which provides them the opportunity to
reach a more balanced decision.
Impulsive and Reflective States
and Traits
First we want to clarify the difference between impulsive
states and traits. To do that we again refer to the reflec-
tive-impulsive model (Strack & Deutsch, 2004): When peo-
ple process information people usually have a general
emphasis on one of the two systems, resulting in the classi-
fication of having an impulsive (or reflective) personality,
trait impulsiveness. Moreover, it is possible that situational
factors put the emphasis on one of the systems; in that case
we refer to impulsive (or reflective) states.
In order to investigate whether attention is distributed as
a function of the cognitive state, we have to manipulate or
measure reflective and impulsive states. Although the theo-
retical distinction between them is relatively straightfor-
ward, it remains a challenge to separate the two states
experimentally. On the one hand, many studies have mea-
sured impulsiveness from explicit questionnaires (e.g., Clift
et al., 1993; Donohew et al., 2000; Dudley et al., 2004) or
made use of conceptual priming techniques (e.g., Guerrieri
et al., 2007), both of which are abstract predictors of impul-
siveness. On the other hand, several studies used fairly spe-
cific measurements and/or manipulations, as for instance, a
stop-signal task (e.g., Guerrieri, Nederkoorn, Schrooten,
Martijn, & Jansen, 2009; Guerrieri et al., 2007) or a mea-
sure of delay of gratification (e.g., Metcalfe & Mischel,
1999). These measurements are quite specific in what they
measure and do not cover impulsiveness in its whole array.
We therefore used a novel, unobtrusive measure of
impulsive and reflective states, namely the eye-blink rate
(EBR). EBR is an innate tendency that is associated with
striatal dopaminergic functioning (e.g., Karson, 1983). Stri-
atal dopaminergic functioning has been linked to a prefer-
ence for immediate over delayed rewards (Hariri et al.,
2006; McClure, Laibson, Loewenstein, & Cohen, 2004).
This preference for immediate rewards has in turn been
linked to impulsiveness (e.g., Martin & Potts, 2004).
Research also indicates that people with high spontaneous
EBR are less capable of inhibiting their impulses (Colzato,
van den Wildenberg, van Wouwe, Pannebakker, &
Hommel, 2009). In contrast, people with low EBR have
better inhibitory control, which has also been related to
impulsiveness (e.g., Dawe, Gullo, & Loxton, 2004). More
directly, high EBR has previously been linked to higher
scores on impulsiveness (Huang, Stanford, & Barratt,
1994). Taken together, these studies support the prediction
that people with a high spontaneous EBR can be considered
more impulsive, whereas people with a low EBR can be
considered more reflective.
The Present Research
In three experiments, we investigated whether cognitive
states alter the focus of peoples attention. In Experiments
1 and 2, we investigated attention to photographs by using
eye-tracking. Eye-tracking has been successfully used to
measure attentional focus in past research (for a review
see Rayner, 1998) and records where visual attention is
aimed. Specifically, this measure assesses selective orient-
ing to information on one part of, for example, a photograph,
at the expense of other parts of the same photograph. If there
is a difference in attentional focus between people in impul-
sive and reflective states, this difference can be revealed by
the eye-tracker.
We expected that people in an impulsive state would
look longer and more often at salient, tempting information
than at less salient information, whereas people in a reflec-
tive state would divide their attention over all the available
information. In Experiment 3, we investigated whether this
314 C. den Daas et al.: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Experimental Psychology 2013; Vol. 60(5):313–323 2013 Hogrefe Publishing
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
difference in focus of attention extends to evaluative judg-
ments. We expected that people in an impulsive state would
base their sexual attractiveness judgments on salient infor-
mation only, whereas people in a reflective state would also
incorporate other available information.
Experiment 1
In this experiment, we used EBR as a measure of impulsive
and reflective cognitive states to test the idea that people in
an impulsive state (high EBR) focus more on salient infor-
mation than people in a reflective state (low EBR). We
chose erotic stimuli that are typically salient, in that they
refer to an opportunity for reproduction. Even though such
pictures might not contain a direct behavioral link, they
should still be quite salient in a way similar to how pictures
of spiders are salient albeit they do not represent a direct
threat (hman et al., 2001). Furthermore, research has
shown that both men and women pay more attention to
bodies in erotic pictures than in nonerotic pictures (Lykins,
Meana, & Kambe, 2006). In Lykins and colleaguesstudy,
heterosexual men and women viewed erotic and nonerotic
pictures of an individual of the opposite sex. In our study,
we showed photographs of naked (erotic) and clothed (less
erotic) individuals side-by-side to investigate whether peo-
ple in an impulsive state focus mainly on salient informa-
tion (naked targets) and people in a reflective state have a
different viewing pattern.
We expected that naked female targets, and similarly
male targets, are salient for both men and women, although
for different underlying reasons. Notably, recent eye-track-
ing studies have shown that heterosexual men spend a sub-
stantial time looking at the body of a depicted woman when
viewing both erotic and nonerotic stimuli (Lykins et al.,
2006; Lykins, Meana, & Strauss, 2008; Rupp & Wallen,
2007). Women are also attuned to attractive women (Maner
et al., 2003), perhaps because they represent potential com-
petitors to their reproductive goal (cf. Gutierres, Kenrick, &
Partch, 1999). The attentional salience of these sexual com-
petitors could help women to determine their own attrac-
tiveness relative to other women and help them to guard
against direct relationship threats posed by other women.
We expected that people in an impulsive state would focus
on the salient photograph depicting a nude individual,
whereas people in a reflective state would divide their
attention over both photographs.
Method
Participants
A total of 53 heterosexual
1
undergraduate students (18 men,
M
age
= 21.32 years; SD = 2.52) participated in this
experiment in exchange for course credits or 2 Euros. This
experiment had a 2 (type of photograph, naked or
clothed) ·2 (gender of the target, within-subject vari-
able) ·2 (gender of the participants, between-subject vari-
able) design, with EBR as the continuous variable and
fixation count and dwell time on photographs as dependent
variables.
Procedure
We first measured participantsEBR with an eye-tracker
(Tobii, type X120). For this measurement, participants were
asked to look at a fixation point for 5 min. Research has
shown that this duration is optimal, as a shorter observation
period is likely to be compromised by natural fluctuations
in eye blinks (Doughty, 2001). All recordings took place
between 10:00 and 17:00 h, as EBR is most stable during
this time of the day (Barbato et al., 2000). In addition, tem-
perature and lighting were held constant (Doughty, 2001).
An eye blink was defined as missing data for
100–500 ms. The number of eye blinks divided by the total
length of recorded time served as the EBR score. In line
with other studies of EBR in healthy individuals (e.g.,
Doughty, 2001), the mean EBR/min in our sample was
12.67 (SD = 6.65).
After this measurement, participants were shown photo-
graphs. Specifically, they were shown 10 pairs of photo-
graphs of people obtained from the Internet, the first five
pairs consisting of women and the next five pairs of men.
We chose to show the photographs of females first, because
photographs of males induce strong (reluctant) reactions
especially in male participants. In order to reduce effects
of gender threat in men, which is not as pronounced in
women, we believe the benefits of presenting the photo-
graphs of men last outweigh the benefits of random presen-
tation. Each pair consisted of two photographs of the same
person, one in which they were naked and in the other in
which they were scarcely clothed. We changed the position
of the naked photograph (left or right). The photographs
shown as a pair were similar in size, position, and body pos-
ture. Each pair was preceded by a fixation cross in the mid-
dle of the screen that appeared for 1 s (approximately
0.96·0.96of visual angle at a viewing distance of
60 cm). The pairs were depicted for 5 s on a 24-inch mon-
itor with a resolution of 1,920 ·1,200 pixels and a repeat
rate of 60 Hz. The height of photographs was between 20
and 24 cm (approximately 18.93and 22.62), the width
of all pictures was between 10 and 15 cm (9.53and
14.25), depending on body posture.
We analyzed the focus of attention by means of dwell
time (the duration of the fixation in a given area), and fix-
ation count (the number of fixations on a given area). We
are aware that there are other measures of attention, but
we have not included these because in Experiment 2, we
compare two regions we are specifically interested in, first
1
We excluded two participants, because they were not heterosexual. In Experiment 2 we also excluded two participants and in Experiment 3
we excluded eight participants.
C. den Daas et al.: Cognitive States Alter Attention 315
2013 Hogrefe Publishing Experimental Psychology 2013; Vol. 60(5):313–323
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
fixations sometimes occur in regions not of interest in the
current study (e.g., head or arm of the target on the photo-
graph). Therefore, we decided to analyze the data using
dwell time and fixation count (e.g., not first fixation and
first run dwell time).
Only the results of the first second of measurement were
analyzed. This strategy was chosen on the basis of the find-
ings of Dixson, Grimshaw, Linklater, and Dixson (2009)
that showed a rapid drop in both dwell time and the number
of fixations after the third second, and found that attentional
effects are typically observed within 1 s after stimulus on-
set. For the data analyses we used a lag time of 200 ms to
allow enough time for the eye to move from its initial fix-
ation point in the center of the screen. We calibrated the
eye-tracker for each participant before each experimental
session.
Results
Two participants were excluded from the data analyses
because the time during which their EBR was recorded
deviated substantially from the intended 5 min (i.e.,
1.87 min and 3.15 min). Another participant was excluded
because he needed eye correction (glasses or lenses) but did
not wear them. The analyses were therefore conducted for
the remaining 50 participants.
Dwell Time
We did a general linear model(GLM) analysis with gender of
the target and type of photograph (naked vs. clothed) as
within-subject variables, gender of participant as between-
subject variable, EBR as continuous variable, and dwell time
on each of the two photographs as dependent variable. As
expected, we found a significant interaction effect between
type of photograph and EBR, F(1, 47) = 9.07, p<.01,
g
p2
= .16. Simple comparisons (Aiken & West, 1991; see
Figure 1) revealed that people with a high EBR (+1 SD)
dwelled significantly longer on the photographs with naked
targets than on those with clothed targets, F(1, 47) = 4.84,
p=.03, g
p2
= .09. People with a low EBR (1SD)
showed the opposite effect, F(1, 47) = 3.98, p<.06,
g
p2
= .08. No other effects were significant.
Fixation Count
A GLM was conducted, with type of photograph and gen-
der of the target as within-subject variables, gender of par-
ticipants as between-subject variable, EBR as continuous
variable, and fixation count for each of the two photographs
(naked and clothed targets) as dependent variable. We
found a main effect of EBR, F(1, 47) = 5.16, p=.03,
g
p2
= .10, such that people with a high EBR had a signifi-
cantly higher fixation count (M=1.85, SD =0.09) than
people with low EBR scores (M=1.59,SD = 0.08). More
importantly, and as expected, we found a significant
interaction effect between type of photograph and EBR,
F(1, 47) = 5.55, p=.02, g
p2
= .11. Simple comparisons
(see Figure 2) revealed that people with a high EBR fixated
significantly more often on the photographs with naked tar-
gets than on those with clothed targets, F(1, 47) = 6.73,
p=.01, g
p2
= .13. The effect of type of photograph did
not reach statistical significance in people with a low
EBR, F<1, whose fixation count was similar across both
types of photographs. Lastly, we found a main effect of
gender, F(1, 47) = 6.59, p=.01,g
p
2
= .12, such that men
(M=1.79,SD = 0.10) had a significantly higher fixation
count than women (M=1.65,SD = 0.07). No other effects
were significant.
0,3
0,4
0,5
0,6
low EBR high EBR
Dwell Time (sec)
Naked
Clothed
Figure 1. Total lengths of time people with high (+1 SD)
and low (1SD) eye-blink rate (EBR) spent paying
attention to photographs of naked or clothed individuals.
Error bars depict standard errors of the means.
1
1,5
2
2,5
low EBR high EBR
Fixation Count
Naked
Clothed
Figure 2. Total number of times people with high and
low eye-blink rate (EBR) fixated on photographs depict-
ing naked or clothed individuals. Error bars depict
standard errors of the means.
316 C. den Daas et al.: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Experimental Psychology 2013; Vol. 60(5):313–323 2013 Hogrefe Publishing
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Discussion
In line with our expectations, we found that people with a
high EBR, that is, people who are more impulsive, had
longer dwell times and higher fixation counts on the photo-
graphs with naked targets than on the photographs with
clothed targets. People with a low EBR, who are considered
to be more reflective, had equal fixation counts on the pho-
tographs with naked and clothed targets. This suggests that
people in reflective states spread their attention over the
available information.
The results for dwell times in people with low EBR
showed a different pattern. People in reflective states did
not divide their attention over both photographs but had
longer dwell times on the photographs with clothed targets
than on those with naked targets. Possibly, reflective partic-
ipants were more influenced by social norms and normative
concerns and thus preferred the photographs with clothed
targets. The absence of an effect in fixation count could
be explained by a floor effect, whereby people with a
low EBR have fewer fixations, making it difficult to find
differences between the two photographs. Although EBR
and fixation count are not the same, they are related, poten-
tially weakening our conclusions with regard to fixation
count. Importantly, however, our results pertaining to dwell
time, which is not strongly related to EBR, confirm our
hypothesis. Nevertheless, we will choose a different manip-
ulation of cognitive states in our second experiment in order
to control for this problem.
Unexpectedly, men had a higher fixation count than
women. This effect could not be explained by a gender dif-
ference in EBR, t(47) = 1.01, p> .30, but possibly reflects
a difference in preference for erotic stimuli. Men generally
prefer more explicit stimuli, whereas women prefer more
subtle references to affection, emotions, and storyline (see
Leitenberg & Henning, 1995). Perhaps then our photo-
graphs (both the naked and the clothed) were more in line
with male-preferred stimuli. We found no other differences
in attention between male and female participants. The ab-
sence of gender differences could be due to our small sam-
ple of men, or to a genuine absence of gender effects, we
discuss these possibilities more extensively in the General
Discussion section. Also, we found no differences regard-
ing the gender of the targets, analyzing the data for just
opposite-sex targets yielded the same result. Arguably, both
naked male and female targets are salient, although likely
for other underlying reasons.
Experiment 2
Notwithstanding these possible limitations, use of EBR
appears to be an exciting new way of unobtrusively measur-
ing cognitive states. Nevertheless, we wanted to replicate
the pattern of results with a different manipulation we have
used before (Den Daas, Hfner, & de Wit, 2013). Therefore,
in Experiment 2 we manipulated cognitive states using a
procedural priming manipulation.
2
Another limitation we
tackled in Experiment 2 was that people in photographs
are generally experienced as salient; therefore, a stronger
test of our hypothesis would be to compare attentional fo-
cus on salient information with non-salient, contextual
information. Additionally, we wanted to clarify the atten-
tional pattern of people in reflective states. Unintentionally,
we created a choice situation in Experiment 1 (between one
of two targets). In Experiment 2, we therefore presented
participants with only one person (target) in a context on
a photograph. We compared attention to the salient area
of the target on the photograph to the background area,
removing the choice between two targets.
In Experiment 2, we again showed people erotic photo-
graphs. Research on the areas of the female body that peo-
ple attend to has shown that womens breasts are a
particular focus of attention, whether the targets are shown
fully clothed (Hewig, Trippe, Hecht, Straube, & Miltner,
2008), wearing less clothing (Suschinsky, Elias, & Krupp,
2007), or naked (Dixson, Grimshaw, Linklater, & Dixson,
2009). Breasts are important appetitive and biologically rel-
evant stimuli for heterosexual men, because they are a cue
to adult sexual maturity (Marlowe, 1998). Most research
has focused on reactions of men to female targets, we how-
ever also included female participants and the reactions of
both genders to targets. We followed the same line of rea-
soning as in Experiment 1 for men and female targets and
expected that the areas that cue sexual maturity (in both
male and female targets) are salient for both men and
women, albeit for different underlying reasons.
In Experiment 2, we again used eye-tracking, this time
to measure attention to the breast and to the genital areas
(Suschinsky et al., 2007) of the bodies of male and female
targets photographed in their underwear. We predicted that
people in impulsive states would focus more on the breasts
and genital areas, whereas people in reflective states would
distribute their attention over the available information and
attend to the background. To test this expectation, cognitive
states were induced in an ostensibly unrelated study
through a procedural priming manipulation. Specifically,
participants were asked to answer questions in a way that
mimics the way people would respond in either an impul-
sive or a reflective state. That is, participants were asked
to respond as fast as possible without reflection or to take
their time and respond only after careful deliberation.
Method
Participants
A total of 31 heterosexual undergraduate students (8 men,
M
age
= 21.03 years; SD = 2.32) participated in this
2
In this study we have manipulated cognitive states in two ways. The procedural priming manipulation, and the other method was very
explicit, participants had to imagine themselves in a situation where they were impulsive or reflective. These methods showed the same
results, thus providing converging validity.
C. den Daas et al.: Cognitive States Alter Attention 317
2013 Hogrefe Publishing Experimental Psychology 2013; Vol. 60(5):313–323
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
experiment in exchange for course credits or 2 Euros. Par-
ticipants were randomly assigned to one of two cognitive
state conditions (impulsive or reflective). The data for
one participant were excluded from the analyses because
of a technical failure in calibrating the eye-tracker.
Procedure
Manipulation of Cognitive State
To manipulate cognitive states, participants completed a
test that was ostensibly about the perceived functionality
of objects. The test required participants to indicate whether
pictures of neutral objects (taken from The Amsterdam
Library of Object Images; Geusebroek, Burghouts, &
Scheulders, 2005) were ‘‘functional’’ (yes-no). We kept
what we meant by ‘‘functional’’ intentionally vague and
told participants that it is arguable whether something is
functional or not. The instruction used to induce an impul-
sive state was: ‘‘This test will work only when you answer
as fast as possible and do not think before you react.’’ When
participants failed to respond within 1,000 ms, they re-
ceived feedback to respond faster. Reflective state was in-
duced by informing participants that the test ‘‘worked’’
only when their answers were given after deliberation.
When they reacted within 2,000 ms, they received feed-
back to think more extensively. Subsequently, we cali-
brated the eye-tracker and started the eye-track portion of
this experiment. The time between the manipulation and
the eye-tracking was kept as short as possible (approxi-
mately 3 min, the time it took to calibrate and start the
experiment).
Eye-Tracking
Participants viewed eight photographs, four of men and
four of women, all in their underwear (the targets). For
the eye-tracking trials, each photograph was presented indi-
vidually in the middle of the computer screen (24-inch
monitor, resolution of 1,920 ·1,200 pixels, repeat rate
60 Hz). The photographs were approximately 10 ·13 cm
(9.53·12.37).
We divided the photographs into two regions of main
interest for subsequent analysis of the eye-tracking results.
The regions were defined as (1) sexual information, includ-
ing the breasts (chest for male targets), from the top of the
clavicle to the posterior border of each breast, and the gen-
ital area, from the top of the underwear to the bottom of the
underwear; and (2) contextual information, referring to the
background of the photograph. The background was the
room the target stood in, thus excluding fixations on
the body that are not the sexual information. For each of
these regions, dwell time and mean fixation count were
used in the analyses for the first second of exposure.
Results
Dwell Times
A GLM with gender of the targets as within-subject vari-
able, cognitive state and gender of participants as
between-subject variables, and dwell times (total time spent
looking at the areas of interest) on each of the two regions
as dependent variables revealed a significant main effect of
region, F(1, 26) = 5.60, p=.03, g
p2
= .18, which was
qualified by a significant interaction between cognitive
states and region, F(1, 26) = 6.33, p= .02, g
p2
= .20. Sim-
ple comparisons revealed that participants in an impulsive
state dwelled on sexual information longer than on contex-
tual information (see Figure 3), F(1, 26) = 11.91, p<.05,
g
p2
= .31. This difference between regions was not sig-
nificant for people in a reflective state, F(1, 26) = .01,
ns, who dwelled equally long on sexual and contextual
information.
The interaction between gender of the targets and region
on dwell time was also significant, F(1, 26) = 8.40,
p<.05,g
p2
= .24. Simple comparisons showed that partic-
ipants dwelled longer on the sexual region of female targets
(M=1.10, SE = .13) than on that of male targets
(M=0.57,SE =.09),F(1, 26) = 15.94, p<.05,g
p2
=.38.
There was no difference in dwell time between the contex-
tual regions of photographs of female (M=0.36,SE = .12)
and male targets (M=0.55,SE = .20), F(1, 26) = 0.92, ns.
Fixation Count
A GLM was conducted with gender of the targets as within-
subject variable, cognitive states and gender of participant
as between-subject variables, and fixation counts for each
of the two regions as dependent variables. This revealed
a significant main effect of region, F(1, 26) = 25.15,
p<.01, g
p2
= .49, which was qualified by a significant
interaction between cognitive states and region,
F(1, 26) = 6.46, p=.02, g
p2
= .20. Simple comparisons
showed that participants in an impulsive state fixated on
the sexual region more often than on the contextual region
(see Figure 4), F(1, 26) = 30.50, p< .01, g
p2
= .54. This
difference between regions was not significant for people
in reflective states, F(1, 26) = 2.87, ns, who fixated equally
often on sexual and contextual information.
We also found a main effect of gender of the targets,
F(1, 26) = 10.66, p<.01, g
p2
= .29, which was qualified
by an interaction between gender of the targets and region,
F(1, 26) = 4.32, p=.05, g
p2
= .14. Simple comparisons
showed that participants fixated more often on the sexual
region of female targets (M=3.48, SE = .36) than on
the sexual region of male targets (M= 2.13, SE =.28),
F(1, 26) = 9.33, p=.01, g
p2
= .26. There was no differ-
ence between the number of fixations in the contextual
region of photographs of female (M= 1.27, SE = .26)
and male targets (M=1.01,SE = .31), F(1, 26) = 1.07, ns.
318 C. den Daas et al.: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Experimental Psychology 2013; Vol. 60(5):313–323 2013 Hogrefe Publishing
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Discussion
The results of Experiment 2 confirm that people in impulsive
and reflective states have different attentional foci. More
specifically, people in impulsive states focus more on sexual
information, whereas people in reflective states divide their
attention between sexual and contextual information. We
found no difference in attention between male and female
participants, all of whom focused more on the sexual area
of female than male targets. Again, analyzing only the
opposite-sex data yielded similar results.
Although we established that being in a reflective rather
than an impulsive state results in differences in the focus of
attention, we did not yet examine whether this difference in
attentional focus also results in any evaluative differences.
It seems that if people have a different attentional focus this
would also result in different outcomes. However, it is
important to test this assumption and investigate whether
this pattern could also result in the increased risk propensity
of people in impulsive states.
Experiment 3
In Experiment 3 we investigated whether paying attention
to different information influences sexual attractiveness
judgments. In Experiments 1 and 2, people in impulsive
states were found to pay less attention to less salient, con-
textual information than to salient, sexual information. This
suggests that the judgments of people in impulsive states
should be less influenced by contextual information. People
in reflective states, however, distribute their attention over
more of the available information and are expected to inte-
grate contextual information into their judgments.
Judgments about peoples sexual attractiveness should be
mainly derived from their attractiveness. As people in impul-
sive states focus their attention on the most salient aspects of
a stimulus, that is on the persondepicted in a photograph, we
expect that people in an impulsive state will indeed derive
their attractiveness ratings mainly from the attractiveness
of the person. However, as people in a reflective state distrib-
ute their attention over more of the available information, we
expect that their sexual attractiveness judgments will also be
influenced by contextual information. Research on contex-
tual influences on evaluative judgments has shown, for
instance, that both mood and the weather influence judg-
ments of life satisfaction (Schwarz & Clore, 1983; Schwarz,
Strack, Kommer, & Wagner, 1987). Context can also
activate certain norms and stereotypes. In line with this
research we therefore expected that paying attention to
context would influence judgments (Higgins, 1996). A bed-
room by association activates the concept of sex, and
depicting a person in a bedroom will therefore increase sex-
ual attractiveness. In contrast, a library is typically not
linked with sex and depicting a person in a library is there-
fore expected to decrease sexual attractiveness judgments.
Of course a library could signal traits such as intelligence
and thus possibly making a person in a library more attrac-
tive. However, we investigate sexual attractiveness not gen-
eral attractiveness.
Contextual, backgrounds can affect evaluative judg-
ments only when people are paying attention to it. There-
fore, we expect that the context effect will be apparent
only for people in a reflective state, who are expected to
distribute their attention over the available information.
People in an impulsive state are not expected to attend to
the contextual, background information and will hence base
their judgments solely on the attractiveness of the target in
the photographs.
Method
Participants
A total of 99 heterosexual undergraduate students (36 men,
M
age
= 21.42; SD = 3.40) participated in this experiment in
0
0,5
1
1,5
Impulsive State Reflective State
Dwell Time (sec)
Sexual
Contextual
Figure 3. Total length of time people in impulsive and
reflective states spent paying attention to the sexual and
contextual regions of photographs. Error bars depict
standard errors of the means.
0
1
2
3
4
Impulsive State Reflective State
Fixation Count
Sexual
Contextual
Figure 4. Total number of times people in impulsive and
reflective states fixated on the sexual and contextual
regions of photographs. Error bars depict standard errors
of the means.
C. den Daas et al.: Cognitive States Alter Attention 319
2013 Hogrefe Publishing Experimental Psychology 2013; Vol. 60(5):313–323
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exchange for course credits or 6 Euros. Participants were
randomly assigned to one of two cognitive state conditions,
impulsive or reflective.
Procedure
Cognitive states were manipulated with a slightly amended
version of the method used in Experiment 2. Participants
now completed an ostensible personality test instead of a
functionality test, indicating whether certain words applied
to them (yes-no). In all other respects, the instructions were
the same as in Experiment 2.
Subsequently, participants were presented with eight
photographs, with a different person (target) depicted on
each, four male targets and four female targets, of whom
two were attractive and two unattractive. A pilot study
(N=35,10men,M
age
= 21.21, SD = 3.27) confirmed that
the targets were perceived as attractive (M=4.20,
SD = 0.96, on a 7-point scale) or unattractive (M=1.54,
SD = 0.66). The background of the photographs was either
a bedroom or a library. There were four different bedroom
and library backgrounds. All stimulus materials were
obtained from the Internet. Participants judged how sexu-
ally attractive they found the targets in the photographs,
giving their responses on a 7-point scale (1 = not very sex-
ually attractive, 7 = very sexually attractive).
Results
Main Analyses
A GLM was conducted with attractiveness of the targets,
type of background, and gender of the targets as within-sub-
ject variables, cognitive state and gender of participants as
between-subject variables, and sexual attractiveness judg-
ments as dependent measures.This analysis revealed a main
effect for attractiveness of the target, F(1, 95) = 175.36,
p<.01,g
p2
= .65. Not surprisingly, attractive targets were
rated as more sexually attractive than unattractive targets.
There also was a main effect of type of background,
F(1, 95) = 17.75, p<.01, g
p2
= .16, which was qualified
by the expected two-way interaction between cognitive state
and type of background, F(1, 95) = 4.45, p<.04,g
p2
=.05.
As expected, simple comparisons revealed that participants
in a reflective state were influenced by type of background,
F(1, 95) = 17.61, p<.01, g
p2
= .16 (see Figure 5). Partici-
pantssexual attractiveness ratings increased when the tar-
get was depicted in a bedroom and decreased when the
target was depicted in a library. Participants in impulsive
states were not significantly influenced by type of back-
ground, F(1, 95) = 2.56, p=.11, g
p2
= .03, although the
pattern of the means is in the same direction. There also
was a significant interaction between type of background
and the attractiveness of the target, F(1, 95) = 7.33,
p=.01, g
p2
= .16. The influence of type of background
on sexual attractiveness ratings was more pronounced for
attractive targets.
Gender effects
We also found several main and interaction effects of gen-
der of the targets and participants. These effects were qual-
ified by a three-way interaction between gender of the
targets, attractiveness of the targets, and gender of the par-
ticipants, F(1, 95) = 20.28, p< .01, g
p2
= .18. Notably,
photographs of attractive male targets were judged to be
less sexually attractive than photographs of attractive
female targets. This effect was explained mainly by the
low sexual attractiveness ratings that male participants
gave, especially in response to photographs of attractive
male targets. There also was a significant interaction effect
between gender of the participants and type of background,
F(1, 95) = 11.42, p<.01, g
p2
= .11. Female participants
were significantly influenced by background, whereas male
participants were not.
General Discussion
The results of three experiments provide substantial evi-
dence to support our central prediction that cognitive states
alter the focus of attention. In Experiment 1, we found that
EBR is an excellent new way of measuring impulsive and
reflective states unobtrusively. Using this novel technique,
we were able to show that impulsive people, as indicated
by high EBR, focused on the more salient of two photo-
graphs, whereas reflective people appeared to distribute
their attention over both photographs and even looked
longer at the less salient photograph. These results were
in line with what we expected and with the results in
Experiment 2.
In Experiment 2, we replicated this finding using a dif-
ferent, established method of manipulating cognitive states
(Den Daas et al., 2013). We found similar results as in
1
2
3
4
Impulsive State Reflective State
Sexual Attractiveness Ratings
Library
Bedroom
Figure 5. Sexual attractiveness ratings made by people in
an impulsive and a reflective state as a function of the
background of photographs. Error bars depict standard
errors of the means.
320 C. den Daas et al.: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Experimental Psychology 2013; Vol. 60(5):313–323 2013 Hogrefe Publishing
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Experiment 1, strengthening our confidence that we can
measure impulsiveness with both our procedural priming
manipulation and the EBR measure. Moreover, we showed
that people in a reflective state divided their attention over
both the sexual and the contextual information in the pho-
tographs, whereas people in impulsive states focused
mainly on the sexual information and paid less attention
to the contextual information.
Experiment 3 extends these findings and showed that dif-
ferences in attentional focus affect sexual attractiveness rat-
ings. When judging sexual attractiveness, people in a
reflective state were influenced by the context in which a per-
son was depicted, whereas people in an impulsivestate were
not. Although we did not measure visual attention in this
study, the pattern of result is perfectly in line with Experi-
ments1and2,inthatpeopleinanimpulsivestatedonot
incorporate contextual information in their judgments. Nota-
bly, in this experiment people in impulsive states seem to
make more pure judgments, as context does not provide
information about sexual attractiveness. However, in most
situations context is not irrelevant for decision making.
Taken together these findings convincingly illustrate
that people in impulsive and reflective states differ not only
in the ways they process information but also in their focus
of attention, which influences their judgments. The present
study thus provides an important basis for further research
of the behavioral consequences of attentional processes in
real life, which could guide the development of prevention
programs to reduce risk behavior, especially for people in
impulsive states who need it most. Our results in particular
shed light on the attention processes that potentially under-
lie differences in risk behavior in impulsive and reflective
cognitive states.
Along the same line as our idea that people in impulsive
states focus their attention on salient information, atten-
tional myopia theory (Mann & Ward, 2004) proposes that
people are disproportionately influenced by the most salient
information when cognitive capacity is limited. Mann and
Wards (2004) research concerns eating behavior in chronic
dieters. They manipulated the saliency of information,
either their diet was made more salient to them than the
available food or the available food was made more salient
to them than indicators of their diet. Salient information
influenced behavior only when peoples cognitive capacity
was limited. We believe that, even though the cognitive
capacity of people in an impulsive state is not necessarily
limited, the attentional processes are comparable to those
of people in states of attentional myopia. Limiting cognitive
capacity can be one of the situational factors that induce
functioning via the impulsive system, and thus an impulsive
state.
Generally, impulsive people are known for their
increased risk propensity, they are not very good in resist-
ing temptations (Clift et al., 1993; Cooper et al., 2000; Den
Daas et al., 2013; Donohew et al., 2000; Dudley et al.,
2004; Guerrieri et al., 2007; Hoyle et al., 2000). We think
this is because temptations are generally salient, because
they are emotional, rewarding, and relevant, as many temp-
tations are linked to one of two social motives: survival and
reproduction (Neuberg, Kenrick, Maner, & Schaller, 2004).
The assumption that focused attention on temptations
would lead to risky behavior is in line with research show-
ing for instance that increasing the attentional bias toward
alcohol cues increased alcohol craving and intake (Field
& Eastwood, 2005; Field et al., 2007). Inhibiting stimuli
have a lower immediate incentive value; therefore, they
will not be most salient in the majority of situations.
Temptations often conflict with long-term goals
(Fishbach & Shah, 2006), which signals that more reflec-
tion is needed before deciding. When reflecting on the con-
sequences of giving in to a temptation, the possible conflict
with long-term goals will increase the likelihood that peo-
ple in a reflective state will pay attention to other available
information as well, because a good decision must be made.
In our studies we investigated appetitive stimuli, that can be
tempting, but they cannot be classified as temptation in the
classical sense, because there was no conflict with an
opposing goal in our experiments. Future research could
investigate attention to temptations and include a measure
of risk decisions in combination with cognitive states.
It is important to consider potential limitations of the
studies. In Experiment 3, we associated attentional focus
with differences in attractiveness ratings, but we did not
measure real-life risk behavior. Not only would it be diffi-
cult to obtain reliable measures of real-life sexual risk-tak-
ing, it would also be unethical to then manipulate cognitive
states, as this could lead to riskier behavior. Pertaining to
gender differences, in both Experiment 1 and Experiment
2, there was a gender imbalance in respondents, and it
remains unclear whether the lack of effect of gender of
the participants was due to the limited number of male par-
ticipants (and thus a lack of statistical power) or the actual
absence of a gender effect. Alternatively, anecdotal data
from Experiment 2 suggest that some of the female partic-
ipants liked the underwear of the female targets. Therefore,
the lack of a gender difference might be explained by the
increased attention female participants paid to the under-
wear of the female targets.
To investigate gender differences more explicitly, we
recruited more men into Experiment 3. We did find some
gender differences, but these were all explained by the fact
that the men did not consider other men attractive, com-
bined with an increased attentional focus of women on
the background of the photographs. Both of these findings
are in line with previous research (Lykins et al., 2006). The
objective of our study was not, however, to assess differ-
ences in the attentional patterns of men and women but
rather to investigate the attentional patterns of people in
reflective and impulsive states. In contrast to the gender ef-
fects, the results for cognitive states and attention are clear
and unequivocal. Future research could further investigate
gender differences in attention, in particular to sexual stim-
uli, also taking cognitive states into account.
Notably though we investigated not only attention to
people of the opposite-sex, but also attention to people of
the same-sex. Our results show that cognitive state gener-
ally affects attention to both types of targets in the same
way. We believe that naked target of the opposite-sex is
salient because they are rewarding, relevant, and emotional.
People of the same-sex are also salient, but we think this is
C. den Daas et al.: Cognitive States Alter Attention 321
2013 Hogrefe Publishing Experimental Psychology 2013; Vol. 60(5):313–323
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because they are emotional and relevant (as possible com-
petitor), albeit not particularly rewarding.
In conclusion, this series of experiments extends previ-
ous research by showing that cognitive states not only influ-
ence the way in which information is processed but also
alter the focus of attention. We used a new measure of cog-
nitive states and validated it with an established means of
manipulating cognitive states. The information that people
in an impulsive state pay attention to is more limited than
the information people in reflective states pay attention
to. For people in impulsive states out of sight means out
of mind.
Acknowledgments
We would like to thank Haico Wensink for his assistance in
collecting data for Experiment 1.
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Received October 22, 2012
Revision received January 4, 2013
Accepted January 7, 2013
Published online April 30, 2013
Chantal den Daas
Department of Social Psychology
Utrecht University
P.O. Box 80140
3508 TC, Utrecht
The Netherlands
E-mail C.denDaas@uu.nl
C. den Daas et al.: Cognitive States Alter Attention 323
2013 Hogrefe Publishing Experimental Psychology 2013; Vol. 60(5):313–323
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