Masked fear words produce increased SCRs: an anomaly for Ohman's theory of pre-attentive processing in anxiety

Psychophysiology. 2000 May;37(3):283-8. doi: 10.1017/s0048577200980673.


A. Ohman and J.J.F. Soares (1994) demonstrated that masked presentation of phobic pictures produces increased skin conductance responses (SCRs) in phobic subjects. A. Ohman (1993) explained this phenomenon in terms of a hypothetical "feature detector" that identifies physical characteristics of stimuli and activates the arousal system without involving significance evaluation or consciousness. By exposing spider phobics to spider words, general threat words, and neutral words instead of pictures, this explanation was tested. Words were presented both masked and unmasked while electrodermal activity was measured. Under unmasked conditions, SCRs were largest for spider words followed by general threat words, then neutral words. When masked, the difference between spider words and general threat words disappeared but SCRs remained significantly smaller for neutral words. It is concluded that activation of the arousal system by masked threat cues does not necessarily depend on their perceptual characteristics.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety / physiopathology
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Fear / psychology*
  • Female
  • Galvanic Skin Response / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Phobic Disorders / physiopathology
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales