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Poster Presentation

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People are highly motivated to approach attractive stimuli and to avoid noxious stimuli (e.g., Lang, Bradley, & Cuthbert, 1990; Schneirla, 1959. Approach of attractive stimuli (e.g., obtaining food, pursuit of sexual relations) and avoidance of noxious stimuli (e.g., defense against predatory threat) ensure continued survival, a basic goal of all living organisms. And yet, sometimes approach/avoidance behavior is maladaptive. For instance, individuals with intense fears of spiders experience strong avoidance motivation in spite of the relative harmlessness of most spiders.

The research reported here evaluated whether a simple, easily executed bodily manipulation can dampen the strong avoidance motivation that typically results when a person is exposed to cues of a feared stimulus (e.g., Hamm, Cuthbert, Globisch, & Vaitl, 1997). Previous research in our laboratory (Thibodeau, 2011) and others (e.g., Cacioppo, Priester, & Berntson, 1993) suggests that the execution of simple actions normally associated with approach behavior (e.g., arm flexion, as when pulling attractive objects near) is sufficient, by itself, to elicit approach motivation. The current research explored whether spider- and snake-fearful undergraduates and non-fearful controls who were exposed to photographs of fear-relevant stimuli could diminish the size and strength of avoidance motives simply by concurrently engaging in an approach-related action. The startle probe (Lang et al., 1990) was used to index the strength of participants’ avoidance motives.


Forty undergraduates participated in the study for course credit. Fearful participants (n = 24) obtained scores above 20 on self-report questionnaires measuring snake or spider fear (Klorman, Weerts, Hastings, Melamed, & Lang, 1974); controls (n = 16) obtained scores below 6.

The startle reflex was indexed by electromyographic (EMG) recording of the orbicularis oculi (“blink”) muscle, contraction of which causes the sudden closure of the eyelids that represents a key element of the startle response. Participants viewed a series of 45 pictures (15 spiders or snakes, 15 household objects, 15 fixation crosses) and concurrently performed arm flexion (an approach action), arm extension (an avoidance action), or squeezed the edge of a table (a neutral control action); all pictures and actions were presented in a quasi-randomized sequence. Bursts of 50-ms white noise (98 dB) were unpredictably presented to elicit the startle reflex. We followed standard procedures for the reduction and scoring of startle data (Blumenthal et al., 2005).


Contrary to predictions, the motivational actions were not related to the size of the startle reflex (Action main effect; p = .27). This pattern held for both groups (Action x Group interaction; p = .17), and it was not moderated by Picture Type (Action x Picture Type interaction; p = .90). The three-way interaction was also nonsignificant (p = .15). Importantly, however, a significant main effect of Picture Type (F[2,76] = 7.03, p = .002) confirmed a previously documented pattern of heightened startle reactivity during viewing of fear-relevant pictures (e.g., Hamm et al., 1997). Overall, the present data suggest that the motivational actions utilized here (Cacioppo et al., 1993; Thibodeau, 2011) are insufficient to moderate avoidance-related emotional responses to feared stimuli.


Poster presented at Faculty Scholarship Celebration, St. John Fisher College, October 25, 2012.

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