Increased attention but more efficient disengagement: Neuroscientific evidence for defensive processing of threatening health information

L.T.E. Kessels*, R.A.C. Ruiter, B.M. Jansma-Schmitt

*Corresponding author for this work

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Objective: Previous studies indicate that people respond defensively to threatening health information, especially when the information challenges self-relevant goals. The authors investigated whether reduced acceptance of self-relevant health risk information is already visible in early attention processes, that is, attention disengagement processes. Design: In a randomized, controlled trial with 29 smoking and nonsmoking students, a variant of Posner's cueing task was used in combination with the high-temporal resolution method of event-related brain potentials (ERPs). Main Outcome Measures: Reaction times and P300 ERP. Results: Smokers showed lower P300 amplitudes in response to high- as opposed to low-threat invalid trials when moving their attention to a target in the opposite visual field, indicating more efficient attention disengagement processes. Furthermore, both smokers and nonsmokers showed increased P300 amplitudes in response to the presentation of high- as opposed to low-threat valid trials, indicating threat-induced attention-capturing processes. Reaction time measures did not support the ERP data, indicating that the ERP measure can be extremely informative to measure low-level attention biases in health communication. Conclusion: The findings provide the first neuroscientific support for the hypothesis that threatening health information causes more efficient disengagement among those for whom the health threat is self-relevant. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2010 APA, all rights reserved) (journal abstract)
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)346-354
JournalHealth Psychology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2010

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