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

Health Psychol. 2010 Jul;29(4):346-54. doi: 10.1037/a0019372.


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.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Cues
  • Defense Mechanisms*
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Smoking Prevention*
  • Young Adult