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.
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