Anger Focuses Attention on Rewards, Not Threats: Study

FRIDAY, Aug. 13 (HealthDay News) — Even though anger is a negative emotion, angry people tend to pay more attention to rewards than threats, a new study finds.

Previous research has found that people with other types of negative emotions, such as fear or anxiety, tend to focus more on threat than reward. For example, they’ll spend more time looking at a picture of a person holding a knife threateningly than a picture of a sexy couple.

On the other hand, people experiencing a positive emotion such as excitement are drawn to rewards, explained Brett Q. Ford, of Boston College, and colleagues.

“Emotions can vary in what they make you want to do. Fear is associated with a motivation to avoid, whereas excitement is associated with a motivation to approach. It can make you want to seek out certain things, like rewards,” Ford said in an Association for Psychological Science news release.

In the study, volunteers were asked to write for 15 minutes about one of four personal memories, and were assigned to write about a time when they were angry, afraid, excited/happy, or felt little or no emotion. Depending on the emotion the participant had been assigned, a five-minute piece of music was played to reinforce the feeling.

After completing the writing task, the volunteers were asked to look at two side-by-side pictures. The investigators used a device that monitors eye movement to determine how much time the volunteers spent focusing on each picture. They found that volunteers who had been assigned to recall an angry memory spent more time looking at rewarding pictures, as did the people who recalled feeling happy and excited.

The findings suggest that visual attention may not be related to negative versus positive emotions, but instead related to how a person’s emotions motivate them. For example, anger might motivate someone to approach something in an aggressive way, while happiness might cause someone to want to approach things in a social or friendly way, the study authors noted in the news release.

“Attention kicks off an entire string of events that can end up influencing behavior,” the authors concluded in the news release.

The study findings were released online in advance of publication in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science.

More information

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy explains how anger affects families.