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Blind Jealousy? Romantic Insecurity Increases Emotion-Induced Failures of Visual Perception

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Does the influence of close relationships pervade so deeply as to impact visual awareness? Results from two experiments involving heterosexual romantic couples suggest that they do. Female partners from each couple performed a rapid detection task where negative emotional distractors typically disrupt visual awareness of subsequent targets; at the same time, their male partners rated attractiveness first of landscapes, then of photos of other women. At the end of both experiments, the degree to which female partners indicated uneasiness about their male partner looking at and rating other women correlated significantly with the degree to which negative emotional distractors had disrupted their target perception during that time. This relationship was robust even when controlling for individual differences in baseline performance. Thus, emotions elicited by social contexts appear to wield power even at the level of perceptual processing.
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Blind Jealousy? Romantic Insecurity Increases Emotion-Induced
Failures of Visual Perception
Steven B. Most, Jean-Philippe Laurenceau, Elana Graber, Amber Belcher, and C. Veronica Smith
University of Delaware
Does the influence of close relationships pervade so deeply as to impact visual awareness? Results from
two experiments involving heterosexual romantic couples suggest that they do. Female partners from
each couple performed a rapid detection task where negative emotional distractors typically disrupt visual
awareness of subsequent targets; at the same time, their male partners rated attractiveness first of
landscapes, then of photos of other women. At the end of both experiments, the degree to which female
partners indicated uneasiness about their male partner looking at and rating other women correlated
significantly with the degree to which negative emotional distractors had disrupted their target perception
during that time. This relationship was robust even when controlling for individual differences in baseline
performance. Thus, emotions elicited by social contexts appear to wield power even at the level of
perceptual processing.
Keywords: emotion-induced blindness, attention, close relationships, threat sensitivity, visual awareness
“It is not love that is blind, but jealousy.”
—Lawrence Durrell, Justine, 1957
It is widely recognized that social relationships impact our
moods, behaviors, and health (Reis, Collins, & Berscheid, 2000),
and insights into their power to do so are as much the domain of
poets and philosophers as they are of psychological scientists.
However, some have argued that psychological science has yet to
consider fully the boundaries at which close relationship contexts
can influence basic cognitive and perceptual processes (Reis &
Collins, 2004). Can fluctuations in perceived social context affect
us so deeply as to influence even our visual processing of the
world?
This question is not far-fetched: visual awareness of items in the
environment depends largely on our ability to direct attention to
them (Chun & Marois, 2002; Mack & Rock, 1998; Most, Scholl,
Clifford, & Simons, 2005; Most et al., 2001; Neisser & Becklen,
1975; Simons & Chabris, 1999), and we tend to prioritize emo-
tional stimuli to such a degree that doing so can impair visual
awareness of nearby nonemotional information (Most & Junge´,
2008; Most et al., 2007; Most, Chun, Widders, & Zald, 2005). The
degree to which emotionally significant items capture attention
seems to be modulated by one’s mood and temperament (e.g., Fox,
Russo, Bowles, & Dutton, 2001), and thus, to the degree that social
contexts influence one’s affective state, it is conceivable that they
impact the processes involved in visual awareness as well.
Close relationships are one of the primary contexts for the
experience of emotion (Berscheid, 1983) and recent evidence from
the neuroimaging literature suggests that social context modulates
activity within neural regions typically responsive to threat. For
example, while in a functional MRI scanner, married women
viewed cues that either were or were not indicative of potentially
imminent electric shock, and while viewing these cues they either
held the hand of their husband, the hand of a male stranger, or no
hand at all (Coan, Schaefer, & Davidson, 2006). Not surprisingly,
brain regions associated with response to threat showed enhanced
activation following cues predicting a shock, but—importantly—
threat-related activity in such regions was diminished when the
participant held her husband’s or a stranger’s hand. Moreover,
holding one’s husband’s hand was associated with greater attenu-
ation of threat-related brain activation than holding a stranger’s
hand, and the degree to which holding one’s husband’s hand
attenuated such activation was correlated with self-reported mar-
ital satisfaction.
If the presence of social support within the context of a romantic
relationship aids in the down-regulation of affective reactivity to
emotionally aversive stimuli, it could be that a perceived threat to
the relationship would have the opposite effect, inducing—perhaps
by increasing anxiety or unease—a heightened state of sensitivity
to emotionally aversive cues. If so, given that reflexive attention to
emotional stimuli can temporarily impair conscious perception
(Most et al., 2005), it would raise the intriguing possibility that
fluctuations in security regarding one’s romantic relationship can
literally affect how one sees the world.
We investigated this possibility in two studies. We recruited
heterosexual romantic couples and administered a rapid attention
task to the female partner, in which she searched for a single target
within a sequence of fleeting images, all the while trying not to be
Steven B. Most, Jean-Philippe Laurenceau, Elana Graber, Amber
Belcher, and C. Veronica Smith, Department of Psychology, University of
Delaware.
Preparation of this article was facilitated by a grant from the National
Institute of Mental Health to J-P Laurenceau (K01MH64779). Thanks to
Matt Shaffer, Patrick Ewell, Ben Hadden, Elizabeth Sullo, and Lauren
Pulinka for their help in running participants.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Steven B.
Most or Jean-Philippe Laurenceau, Department of Psychology, University
of Delaware, 108 Wolf Hall, Newark, DE 19716-2577. E-mail:
most@psych.udel.edu or jlaurenceau@psych.udel.edu
Emotion © 2010 American Psychological Association
2010, Vol. 10, No. 2, 250–256 1528-3542/10/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0019007
250
distracted by a neutral or emotional picture that could appear.
Typically, in this task, people have more difficulty reporting the
target when an emotional distractor appears before or immediately
after the target than when a neutral distractor appears (Most &
Junge´, 2008; Most et al., 2005). In a manipulation of perceived
relationship threat (following from a previous study; Simpson,
Ickes, & Blackstone, 1995), the female partner performed this task
while her male partner first rated the attractiveness of landscapes
and then while he rated the attractiveness of other women who
presumably were romantically accessible. Because we assumed
that the relationship threat manipulation—which was the critical
manipulation of interest—would not be equally effective for all
participants, the female partner was asked at the end of the exper-
iment to report how uneasy she was about the fact that her partner
had been rating other women, and the correlation between this
measure and emotion-induced blindness during the time that he
was doing so served as our primary focus of analysis. Meanwhile,
trials administered during the time that the male partner rated
landscapes ensured that all participants received substantial prac-
tice before the relationship threat manipulation, and these trials
were also included in the analyses to ensure that the primary
correlations of interest stemmed from the manipulation itself rather
than solely from baseline, trait-related individual differences (e.g.,
whereby participants who felt most threatened by the manipulation
might also happen to be sensitive to emotional distractors gener-
ally). To further assess whether potential links between levels of
discomfort caused by this relationship threat and temporary per-
ceptual lapses might be accounted for by mere trait level individual
differences, participants also completed measures of global threat
sensitivity and of relationship-specific threat sensitivity.
Experiment 1
Method
Participants. Twenty-five heterosexual romantic couples
were recruited from an ongoing study on close relationships. Either
one or both of the partners was enrolled in an introductory psy-
chology class and received extra course credit for their participa-
tion in this experiment. The average age of the female partners was
19.2 years, and the average age of the male partners was 20.11
years. Average length of relationship in months was 10.96 (rang-
ing from 1 to 38 months). All participants gave informed consent.
Materials and procedure. Before the laboratory session, par-
ticipants completed a demographics background survey and a brief
set of paper-and-pencil measures, including an established trait
measure of global threat sensitivity (Behavioral Inhibition Scale,
or BIS; Carver & White, 1994) and of relationship threat sensi-
tivity (RTS; Laurenceau, Kleinman, Kaczynski, & Carver, in
press). This latter measure consisted of five items such as “If I
think something unpleasant is going to happen in my romantic
relationship, I usually get pretty ‘worked up’ and upset” answered
using a 4-point Likert scale of agreement. This scale has demon-
strated good reliability, a unitary factor structure, and expected
validity coefficients as a measure of relational threat sensitivity
(Laurenceau et al., in press). The coefficient alphas for the RTS
and the BIS in this sample were .61 and .77, respectively.
Couples participated in the laboratory paradigm one couple at a
time. Before beginning, the female partner received 12 practice
trials: on each trial, 12 upright landscape and architectural photos
flashed on a screen in rapid succession, and she was required to
detect a single target within the stream: a landscape/architectural
photo that was rotated 90-degrees clockwise or counterclockwise.
The first several practice trials were presented at 200 ms per item,
on the eighth trial this increased to 100 ms per item, and the last
two trials were presented at 60 ms per item, which was to be the
actual presentation speed during the experiment. At the end of the
practice session, the female partner was informed that the streams
of items during the experiment might also contain pictures of
people or animals, some of which would be graphic, but that such
pictures were always nontargets and should be ignored.
During the experiment, the female and male partners sat at
computers in the same room, but they were several feet away from
each other and separated by a curtain. The female and male
partners performed different tasks from each other, which were
coordinated so that they would end at roughly the same time. After
they took their places, the experimenter stood within view of both
partners and explained the first part of procedure: the female
partner would perform the same task that she had just practiced
while the male partner simply rated the attractiveness of land-
scapes. The experimenter then reminded the participants not to talk
to each other during the experiment and left the room. Partway
through the experiment, the female partner was instructed by the
computer to retrieve the experimenter, who then stood again within
view of both partners and explained the second part of the proce-
dure: the female partner would continue with the same task, but the
male partner—rather than rating the attractiveness of landscapes—
would now be rating “the attractiveness of single women, some of
whom are on campus here.” The experimenter then left the room
again. At the end of the experiment, the female partner was asked
two questions, which appeared on the computer screen: (a) “When
your partner was rating the attractiveness of other women, how
uneasy did this make you?”, and 2) “When your partner was rating
the attractiveness of landscapes, how uneasy did this make you?”
Both ratings were made using a Likert scale ranging from 1 (not
uneasy at all) to 9 (very uneasy). After the experiment, the partic-
ipants were fully debriefed, and it was additionally disclosed that
the pictures of women rated by the male partner had been collected
from the Internet and had no known association with the univer-
sity.
Details of the female partner’s task. Stimuli were color
photographs: 56 emotionally aversive pictures, 56 emotionally
neutral pictures, 56 scrambled versions of the aversive pictures,
210 upright landscape/architectural scenes, and 168 target images
(84 landscape/architectural photos rotated 90-degrees to the left
and right). Stimuli were 9.4-cm wide, 7.1-cm high, and were
presented on a CRT monitor with a 99 Hz refresh rate via the
Psychophysics Toolbox extensions for Matlab (Brainard, 1997;
Pelli, 1997). Emotional and neutral pictures were drawn mostly
from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS; Lang,
Bradley, & Cuthbert, 2001) and were supplemented by similar
pictures from publicly available sources (see Most et al., 2005).
Both the negative and the neutral pictures were of people or
animals, with the negative images depicting graphic violence,
distress, and medical trauma. The neutral pictures were balanced
with the negative pictures for numbers of depictions of people and
animals. Negative and neutral pictures had been rated for valence
(i.e., negative vs. positive) and arousal (low vs. high) on a 9-point
251
BLIND JEALOUSY
Likert scale by a separate group of individuals (6 men, 6 women).
Negative pictures, relative to neutral pictures, were rated as more
unpleasant (negative: M1.72, SD .54; neutral: M5.00,
SD .45; t(11) 13.41, p.00001) and more arousing (nega-
tive: M6.07, SD .68; neutral: M3.18, SD .55; t(11)
4.86, p.001).
1
Experiment trials consisted of a rapid serial visual presentation
(RSVP) stream of 17 images. Except for two images, all were
upright landscape/architectural photographs; the remaining two
images consisted of the critical distractor and the target stimulus
(see Figure 1). The critical distractor could be an emotional pic-
ture, a neutral picture, or an upright landscape/architectural photo
that blended in with the rest of the stream (baseline); in each case,
the critical distractor remained on-screen for 100 ms and, depend-
ing on the trial, it was the 4th, 7th, or 10th item in the stream. The
target stimulus was a landscape/architectural photo rotated 90
degrees to the left or right, which was always the 5th item after the
distractor. The 100-ms duration of the critical distractor was based
on previous findings that even such rapid exposure is sufficient to
elicit a general emotion-induced blindness effect (Most et al.,
2005); all other items in the stream were presented for 60 ms to
keep performance lower than ceiling levels even after substantial
practice. At the end of each trial, participants pressed either the
left-arrow key or the right-arrow key to indicate the rotation of the
target. There were 42 trials during the first part of the experiment,
while the male partner was rating landscapes, and 126 trials during
the second part, while the male partner was rating other women.
Details of the male partner’s task. During the first part of the
experiment, the male partner rated the attractiveness of 22 land-
scape photos on a Likert scale ranging from 1 (very unattractive)
to 9 (very attractive), and each photo was presented for 3 s. During
the second part of the experiment, he did the same for 66 photos
of women, which had been collected from publicly available
sources on the Internet.
Results and Discussion
Two couples were removed from the analyses because the
female partner rated herself as being more uneasy when the male
partner rated landscapes than when he rated other women, raising
the possibility that these participants had misunderstood the ques-
tion or the rating scale (both participants’ ratings of unease when
their partners rated landscapes were more than 2.5 SDs above the
mean). An omnibus 3 (distractor valence: negative vs. neutral vs.
baseline) 2 (partner’s task: rate landscapes vs. rate other
women) repeated measures ANOVA revealed a main effect of
valence, F(2, 44) 16.78, p.001,
p
2
.43: accuracy in the
female partners’ task was lower after a negative emotional distrac-
tor than after a neutral distractor, which in turn was lower than in
the baseline condition. This was the case both when the male
partner was rating landscapes (negative: M76.6%, SD 11.1%;
neutral: M82.3%, SD 11.4%; baseline: M87.3%, SD
14.0%) and when he was rating other women (negative: M
85.3%, SD 8.4%; neutral: M89.2%, SD 6.3%; baseline:
M92.3%, SD 4.8%). Pairwise comparisons revealed that the
performance following a negative emotional distractor was signif-
icantly worse than that following a neutral distractor regardless of
the male partner’s task (while partner rated landscapes: t(22)
2.66, p.01; while partner rated other women: t(22) 3.59, p
.002). Following from previous work (Most et al., 2005), we refer
to this greater target perception impairment after an emotional
distractor as “emotion-induced blindness.” In addition, underscor-
ing the importance of using the landscape-rating period to allow
the female participants to grow accustomed to their task, there was
a significant practice effect, as reflected in a main effect of
partner’s task, F(1, 22) 10.93, p.003,
p
2
.33: that is, the
female participants had higher accuracy in the second part and
of the experiment, when her partner was rating other women,
than in the first part of the experiment, when he was rating
landscapes.
On average, when their male partners were rating the attractive-
ness of other women, female participants reported their level of
uneasiness as 3.9 out of 9, with uneasiness ranging from 1 to 8
across participants. (In contrast, their average level of uneasiness
was 1.1 when their partners were rating landscapes, with a range
from 1 to 2.) Notably, the degree to which female participants
exhibited emotion-induced blindness while their partner rated the
attractiveness of other women was strongly correlated with their
self-rated level of unease about the fact that he was doing so, r
.45, p.030 (see Figure 2).
2
In contrast, uneasiness about one’s
partner rating the attractiveness of other women did not correlate
with degree of emotion-induced blindness elicited during the pe-
riod when he had been rating landscapes, r⫽⫺.001, p.996. To
assess whether emotion-induced blindness during the time that
one’s partner was rating other women correlated with self-rated
unease over and beyond trait-related individual differences, we
conducted a partial correlation controlling for emotion-induced
blindness during the landscape-rating condition. This partial cor-
1
Two negative distractors were not included in these ratings. However,
in the IAPS norms, their valence values were 1.7 and 2.35, and their
arousal values were 7.03 and 6.91, respectively.
2
This relationship was significant even when the two excluded couples
were not removed from the analyses ( p.05).
Figure 1. Schematic illustration of part of a trial. Participants’ task was
to detect the one rotated target in the stream and to indicate whether it had
been turned clockwise or counterclockwise. The target always appeared as
the 5th item following a critical distractor. In Experiment 1, critical
distractors were either emotionally negative or neutral pictures or upright
landscapes drawn from the same pool as most other items in the stream. In
Experiment 2, critical distractors could also be erotic pictures. In both
experiments, the critical distractors were presented for 100 ms and all other
stream items were presented for 60 ms.
252 MOST, LAURENCEAU, GRABER, BELCHER, AND SMITH
relation revealed that this relationship remained significant, r
.45, p.034. To assess directly whether the correlation between
unease and emotion-induced blindness was larger during the time
that the male partner rated other women than when he rated
landscapes, we compared these overlapping correlated correlation
coefficients using Hotelling’s t(Meng, Rosenthal, & Rubin, 1992).
This difference was sizable but not statistically significant, t(20)
1.59, p.128, two-tailed.
We further addressed the possibility that individual differences
in trait levels of global threat sensitivity or length of relationship
could account for the above effects by conducting a regression
analysis where BIS scores (Carver & White, 1994) and relation-
ship length (in months) were entered simultaneously with self-
rated degree of unease about the male partner’s task. In this model,
unease remained a significant predictor of emotion-induced blind-
ness (␤⫽.46, t2.22, p.039) while global threat sensitivity
(␤⫽⫺.01, t0.07, ns) and relationship length (␤⫽⫺.08, t
0.40, ns) were not. In addition, because the BIS serves as a global
measure of trait anxiety, we also similarly examined whether
individual differences in trait levels of relationship threat sensi-
tivity (indexed via the RTS; Laurenceau et al., in press), specifi-
cally, could account for the above effects. As with the regression
incorporating global BIS, unease remained a significant predictor
of emotion-induced blindness (␤⫽.48, t2.29, p.03) while
relationship threat sensitivity (␤⫽⫺.10, t0.46, ns) and rela-
tionship length (␤⫽.08, t0.38, ns) were not.
Experiment 2
Replication was a central goal of Experiment 2. However, we
also took the opportunity to address two additional questions: (a)
to what degree is heightened sensitivity to emotional distractors, as
a function of the effectiveness of the relationship threat manipu-
lation, specific to distractors of typically negative valence? And (b)
do manipulations of relationship threat impact executive processes
that might otherwise allow one to override emotion-induced blind-
ness through strategic attentional tuning? Relevant to the first
question, previous research has found that positive emotional
stimuli can induce impairments in target perception as robustly as
negative emotional stimuli can, as long as they elicit a large
arousal response; indeed, erotic stimuli—which tend to be rated
positively by both men and women (Bradley, Codispoti, Sabati-
nelli, & Lang, 2001)—were found in one study to induce even
more robust emotion-induced blindness than did graphic, emotion-
ally negative stimuli (Most et al., 2007). One question, then, is
whether discomfort with the fact that one’s romantic partner is
evaluating the attractiveness of other opposite sex individuals
heightens sensitivity to these typically non-negative emotionally
laden distractors that nonetheless contain content evocative of
intimacy and potential relationship threat. In Experiment 2, the
female partner’s task included a set of erotic distractors as well as
negative distractors.
Relevant to the second question, previous research has found
that the degree to which emotionally negative distractors impair
target perception can be modulated by one’s attentional strategy, at
least among non-trait-anxious individuals. In one study, for exam-
ple, the targets in one condition were always pictures of a rotated
building, whereas targets in another condition could be pictures
either of rotated buildings or of rotated landscapes that contained
no buildings (Most et al., 2005, Experiment 2). The rationale of the
manipulation was that if people were given relatively specific
information about their target, they should be able to “tune” their
attention in such a way as to facilitate ignoring of emotional
distractors. (This manipulation is intuitive if one imagines search-
ing for a friend in a crowd: the search is more efficient if one
knows more specifically what one’s friend is wearing.) In that
study, having more specific target information did not decrease
emotion-induced blindness at all among people scoring high in a
measure of “harm avoidance,” which is associated with trait anx-
iety (Cloninger, Przybeck, & Svrakic, 1991), but it completely
eliminated the effect among those scoring low in harm avoidance
(Most et al., 2005). In Experiment 2, we included a manipulation
of target specificity to assess whether self-rated uneasiness would
be associated with a weakened ability to use strategic tuning of
attention to ignore emotional distractors.
In an additional modification to the design of Experiment 2, the
number of trials completed while one’s partner rated landscapes
was the same as during the condition in which he rated other
women. Although the landscape-rating condition served primarily
as a control accounting for trait-like individual differences in
emotion-induced blindness, this modification was important for
addressing a possible shortcoming of the design of Experiment 1:
in that experiment, the number of trials in the two conditions
differed, and it was important to eliminate the possibility that this
inequality drove differences in correlations with self-rated uneas-
iness.
Method
Participants. Twenty-seven male-female couples were re-
cruited from an ongoing study on close relationships. Either one or
Figure 2. Data from Experiment 1. During the time that male partners
were rating the attractiveness of other women, the degree to which female
partners experienced emotion-induced blindness—that is, disruption of
target perception caused by negative distractors over and beyond any
disruption caused by neutral distractors—was significantly correlated with
the degree to which they later rated themselves as having been uneasy
about their male partner looking at other women.
253
BLIND JEALOUSY
both of the partners was enrolled in an introductory psychology
class and received extra course credit for their participation in this
experiment. The average age of the female partners was 19.35
years, and the average age of the male partners was 19.96 years.
Average length of relationship was 10 months (ranging from 1 to
36 months). All participants gave informed consent.
Materials and procedure. The general procedure and paper-
and-pencil measures were the same as in Experiment 1. The
coefficient alphas for the RTS and the BIS in this sample were .73
and .75, respectively. Critical distractors included the same emo-
tionally negative and neutral sets of pictures, as well as a set of 56
erotic pictures of nude or seminude heterosexual couples. The
target in all analyzed trials was a rotated picture of a building. Each
of the eight blocks of 42 trials included 14 “filler” trials that were
not analyzed, but which allowed the manipulation of attentional
set: in the “specific attentional set” condition, the target on filler
trials was a rotated building (thus ensuring that all targets in this
condition were pictures of rotated buildings); in “nonspecific at-
tentional set” blocks, it was a rotated landscape without a building.
Filler trials contained no critical distractors. Blocks alternated by
attentional set condition, with the specific attentional set condition
always coming first; order of blocks was kept constant across partic-
ipants to reduce noise that might otherwise obscure individual differ-
ences.
3
Each female participant completed four blocks while her
partner rated the attractiveness of landscapes and another four
blocks while he rated the attractiveness of other women. Each
block contained 7 negative, 7 neutral, 7 erotic, 7 baseline, and
14 filler trials.
Results and Discussion
Following the same criterion as in Experiment 1, one romantic
couple was eliminated from the analyses because the female rated
herself as experiencing more uneasiness when her partner rated
landscapes than when he rated other women, raising the possibility
that she had misunderstood the question or rating scale. An om-
nibus 4 (distractor valence: negative vs. neutral vs. erotic vs.
baseline) 2 (attentional set: specific vs. nonspecific) 2 (part-
ner’s task: rate landscapes vs. rate other women) repeated mea-
sures ANOVA revealed a main effect of attentional set, F(1, 25)
7.39, p.012,
p
2
.23, but contrary both to our predictions and
with previous research (Most, Chun, Johnson, & Kiehl, 2006;
Most et al., 2005), accuracy was higher in the nonspecific atten-
tional set condition (M86%, SD 9%) than in the specific
attentional set condition (M83%, SD 7%). As noted in
Footnote 3, this may have been because of a practice effect, as the
experiment always began with the specific attentional set condition
and ended with the nonspecific attentional set condition. A main
effect of distractor valence also emerged, F(3, 75) 20.30, p
.001,
p
2
.45: accuracy was lowest after erotic distractors (M
77%, SD 13%), next lowest after negative distractors (M
83%, SD 10%), next lowest after neutral distractors (M87%,
SD 8%), and highest in the baseline condition (M91%, SD
7%). To test our main questions of interest—whether attentional
set and self-rated unease predicted emotion-induced blind-
ness—we created separate emotion-induced blindness indexes for
the effect of negative distractors (accuracy in the neutral condi-
tion accuracy in the negative condition) and of erotic distractors
(neutral erotic accuracy) for each attentional set condition
during the time that the male partner rated other women. Pairwise
comparisons revealed no significant effect of attentional set on
emotion-induced blindness, whether induced by negative ( p
.25) or erotic ( p.90) distractors, so we collapsed across atten-
tional set condition for the remainder of the analyses. As in
Experiment 1, and again underscoring the importance of using
trials in the landscape-rating condition as a means to get partici-
pants accustomed to the task, there was a main effect of partner’s
task, F(1, 25) 17.01, p.001,
p
2
.41: the female participants
had higher accuracy in the later part of the experiment, when her
partner was rating other women, than in the earlier part of the
experiment, when he was rating landscapes.
Most importantly, as in Experiment 1, the degree to which
women reported unease about their partner rating the attractiveness
of other women was significantly and inversely correlated with
target detection accuracy following a negative distractor (r
.42, p.035), but not with accuracy following neutral (r
.03, p.88) or erotic (r⫽⫺.22, p.28) distractors or in trials
containing no distractors (r⫽⫺.12, p.56). This translated into
a significant correlation with emotion-induced blindness (i.e., the
difference between accuracy in the emotional compare to neutral
distractor trials) caused by negative distractors (r.55, p.004;
see Figure 3) but not by erotic distractors (r.30, p.14).
Although the difference between these correlated correlation coeffi-
cients was not significant when tested directly with Hotelling’s t,
t(23) 1.56, p.132, two-tailed (Meng et al., 1992), the
correlation between emotion-induced blindness in the negative
condition and unease was significant when controlling for
emotion-induced blindness in the erotic condition, r.48, p
.015 (the reverse was not true). One possible explanation for the
difference in strength between these correlations is that partici-
pants simply did not try as hard to ignore erotic distractors as they
did negative emotional distractors. In a previous experiment, mon-
etary performance-based incentives decreased emotion-induced
blindness after negative emotional distractors but not after erotic
distractors, suggesting that people either are truly less able to
ignore erotic distractors than negative ones or that even large
amounts of money fail to dissuade people from trying to glimpse
representations of sexual conduct (Most et al., 2007).
4
As in Study 1, we also controlled for the possibility that trait-
like individual differences might account for the correlation be-
tween unease about one’s partner rating other women and
emotion-induced blindness caused by negative distractors during
the time that he was doing so. A partial correlation, controlling for
emotion-induced blindness during the landscape-rating condition,
revealed that the effectiveness of the relationship threat manipu-
lation predicted emotion-induced blindness while one’s partner
rated other women, over and beyond baseline levels of emotion-
3
Note that this was a conservative ordering. Participants in previous
studies have been shown to perform better in the specific attentional set
condition (e.g., Most et al., 2005). However, by always starting with this
condition in this experiment, it was the nonspecific attentional set condition
that stood to benefit the most from accumulated practice.
4
It is also worth noting that the erotic distractors might have been
relevant to participants’ frames of mind in unintended ways because of
their depiction of intimacy within the context of a romantic relationship
manipulation.
254 MOST, LAURENCEAU, GRABER, BELCHER, AND SMITH
induced blindness, r.539, p.005. (Indeed, there appeared to
be no correlation at all between emotion-induced blindness during
the landscape-rating condition and unease, r.113, p.584.)
We also conducted a regression analysis incorporating global BIS,
relationship length, and ratings of unease, which indicated that
both level of unease about the male partner’s task (␤⫽.54, t
3.36, p.004) and global threat sensitivity (␤⫽.55, t3.46,
p.003) were unique, independent, and significant predictors of
emotion-induced blindness, whereas relationship length was not
(␤⫽⫺.10, t.62, ns). A similar regression analysis indicated
that level of unease about the male partner’s task also remained a
significant predictor of emotion-induced blindness (␤⫽.53, t
3.17, p.006), independent of relationship threat sensitivity (␤⫽
.53, t3.20, p.005) and relationship length (␤⫽⫺.12, t
.70, ns). It is curious that global- and relationship-threat sensitivity
emerged as significant predictors in this experiment but not in
Experiment 1; possible explanations are that this discrepancy is
simply a consequence of testing different samples in the two
experiments or a consequence of somewhat lower reliability of the
BIS and RTS scales in Study 1. Notably, this discrepancy makes it
all the more striking that the predictive power of self-rated unease
should be so consistent in both cases.
General Discussion
In two separate experiments, we found strong associations be-
tween the degree to which people felt threatened by a social
context and the degree to which task-irrelevant, negative emotional
distractors grabbed attention and impaired visual awareness of
targets. This finding addresses two questions simultaneously: (a)
can emotion-induced blindness be modulated by an individual’s
emotional state?; and (b) can interpersonal factors—likely operat-
ing through their impact on emotional state—have such pervasive
effects as to permeate processes involved in conscious perception?
The answer to both questions appears to be yes.
Notably, although one reasonable prediction would have been
that a heightened state of anxiety would increase general distract-
ibility, in both experiments self-reported unease only correlated
with performance decrements induced by distractors typically clas-
sified as emotionally negative, not with performance in neutral,
erotic, or baseline conditions. This is despite the fact that the erotic
distractors contained content evocative of intimacy and relation-
ship threat and might—in the context of having one’s partner rate
the attractiveness of one’s potential romantic rivals—have them-
selves taken on negative valence. Future experiments should con-
tinue to explore the potential specificity between emotional state
and spontaneous attention to distractors. Furthermore, unease
about having one’s romantic partner rate the attractiveness of other
women correlated with emotion-induced blindness only during the
time that he was doing so, not when he was rating the attractive-
ness of landscapes. This is important, as it suggests that heightened
sensitivity to emotional distractors in these experiments was a
function of the effectiveness of the relationship threat manipula-
tion rather than simply a function of a more general association
between trait anxiety and a stronger bias to attend to emotional
information. Underscoring this point, the relationship between
self-rated unease and emotion-induced blindness remained strong
and significant even when factored into a model that accounted for
global and relationship-specific trait sensitivity to threat.
It is worth noting that although our a priori design choices
allowed us to uncover correlations between the effectiveness of the
relationship threat manipulation and emotion-induced blindness,
these same choices possibly hindered our ability to reveal poten-
tially interesting main effects. For example, in Experiment 2 we
found no main effect or interactions involving the attentional set
manipulation; it is possible that this manipulation might have had
more impact had we counterbalanced the order of the specific- and
nonspecific attentional set conditions. However, based on our
anticipation of a strong role for individual differences in sensitivity
to the relationship threat manipulation, we strategically chose to
hold the order of conditions constant so as better to allow these
individual differences to emerge. Future research might pursue the
opposite tactic, more heavily emphasizing the main effects of the
manipulations at the potential cost of being able to account for
individual differences.
In the current experiments, it was always the female partner who
performed the emotion-induced blindness task while her partner
rated the attractiveness of pictures. This was not because of as-
sumptions regarding sex differences but was instead motivated by
the need to test the hypothesized effect in a relatively homogenous
population (i.e., to eliminate as much noise as possible in ratings
of general unease). It is an open question as to whether male
participants would show the same effect if the roles were reversed;
it may be that even a stronger relationship would emerge in such
a scenario. Another question—given that romantic relationship
quality predicts the degree to which threat-activated brain regions
are calmed when holding a partner’s hand (Coan et al., 2006) – is
whether couple-to-couple individual differences moderate the in-
fluence of the partner’s rating task on emotion-induced blindness.
We did find some evidence, in Experiment 2, that trait-like differ-
ences in female partner sensitivity to relationship threat predicted
emotion-induced blindness when participants’ male partners were
Figure 3. Data from Experiment 2. As in the first experiment, during the
time that male partners were rating the attractiveness of other women, the
degree to which negative emotional distractors elicited emotion-induced
blindness among the female partners was significantly correlated with the
degree to which they later rated themselves as having been uneasy about
their male partner looking at other women.
255
BLIND JEALOUSY
rating the attractiveness of potential romantic competitors, inde-
pendent of self-rated unease. This provides more reason to suggest
that relationship-related individual differences and features of the
current relational context may indeed play a role in predicting
visual attention, but such a claim as yet awaits further confirma-
tion.
The language of social relationships is filled with visual meta-
phor: a person, for example, “sees” another’s inner beauty but can
be “blinded” by love or jealousy. Now, it turns out that such turns
of phrase connect to reality perhaps more concretely than might
have been expected. The influence of social emotions—known to
affect moods, behaviors, and physical health—appears to permeate
so deeply as to affect processes involved in visual awareness.
Given the temptation to frame these findings specifically in terms
of relationship threat, it is important to note that this manipulation
was potentially one of several that might have a similar impact by
virtue of increasing levels of anxiety and unease. That said, al-
though lovers, poets, and philosophers may debate whether indeed
love is blinding, the present evidence suggests that—in at least
some situations—jealousy is.
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Received September 10, 2008
Revision received September 2, 2009
Accepted September 26, 2009
256 MOST, LAURENCEAU, GRABER, BELCHER, AND SMITH
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